U.S. sued over planes that suck up cell phone data

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A civil liberties group has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Marshals Service, demanding more information about a controversial surveillance tactic involving airplanes that fly over urban areas in order to sweep up cell phone signals.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s lawsuit, filed in Washington, claims that the group demanded documents about the plane program under freedom-of-information laws last November, but that the federal government has so far failed to turn them over as required.

The plane program in question came to light last after the Wall Street Journal revealed how the Justice Department straps small devices known as “dirtboxes” to Cessna planes in order to lock on to cell signals. The devices, which measure two feet square, are reportedly capable of recording location, phone data and even conversations.

The device-equipped planes also allegedly locks on to the phones of suspects and innocent people alike, but then discards data gathered from the non-suspects.

A spokesperson from the Justice Department on Tuesday declined to comment about the plane program or the FOIA lawsuit.

The lawsuit itself asks a judge to order the government to comply with the freedom-of-information law demands, which the EFF says it originally sent to the Justice Department, the FBI and the Marshals Service. These included requests for records about the plane program, about related criminal cases, and information about which state and federal agencies are using the devices.

If the lawsuit gains traction, it could bring new attention to the government’s use of stingrays, which is the name commonly used to describe devices that mimc cell phone towers in order to trick cell phones into connecting to them. The plane program appears to be just an airborne extension of that practice.

Meanwhile, the federal government’s surveillance policies are also under scrutiny in light of the recent disclosure of a cross-agency license-plate program that is amassing driver data at record rates.

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