November 2014 was an exceptional month on the government surveillance front. Some new acronyms and codewords entered the lexicon of discussion such as IMSI catcher, Dirtbox, and Stingray.
The first time I heard the term IMSI catcher was actually in late October. This was in a segment by Martin Kaste on the October 22nd broadcast of All things Considered. Kaste was speaking with an ACLU attorney named Nate Freed Wessler. IMSI is an acronym for International Mobile Subscriber Identity. So what’s an IMSI catcher? The idea is this: a transciever is designed to mimic a local cellphone tower. Essentially, it spoofs all phones within its range into thinking its the nearest cell tower and so the phones exchange data with it, such as their location. What Wessler had tried to do was use Florida’s public records act to get information about what a police department in Sarasota was doing with their IMSI catchers. Wessler’s tale ended with the U.S. Marshall’s Service seizing the collected records before they could be turned over.
This red-lined my curiosity. I emailed the article to several colleagues, some of whom were dismayed to find an attachment in their email marked “IMSI Catcher.” I had to find out more about this topic and began researching it in my spare time. Turns out that Devlin Barrett of the Wall Street Journal was way ahead of me. His story bore the ominous title “American’s Cellphones Targeted in Secret U.S. Spy Program.” It was published on November 13th and can be found here. I heard about it the following day, again on NPR, this time in a segment by Audie Corniche. She did a brief interview with Devlin. When I realized what they were talking about, I couldn’t believe my ears. The U.S. Marshall’s Service had installed very powerful IMSI catchers in Cessna airplanes and were using them in the course of their investigations. This activity could collect data from potentially thousands of phones and raised a number of disturbing questions. What do they do with the data of the people they aren’t looking for? Where are the warrants and the court orders authorizing this dragnet?
The device deployed by the Marshall’s is informally called a “Dirtbox” and derived from the acronym of the manufacturer DRT or Digital Receiver Technology. That company is now a subsidiary of Boeing, an operation that has produced some of the finest military surveillance aircraft.
In contrast, a Stingray is a device with a shorter range that operates on the ground. It essentially performs the same function on a smaller scale. Turns out our own Houston Police Department acquired one or more of these devices recently and uses them in investigations. This was discovered by KPRC investigative reporter Jace Arnold and published on November 19th. Chief Charles McClelland assured Arnold that HPD always gets judicial approval for its surveillance activity. My question is, have they ever been compelled to disclose this kind of surveillance to a particular defendant’s lawyer?
It seems to me the next logical step would be to place a DRT, or even a Stingray, into a drone. If I’ve thought of that sitting here at my desk, I’m sure someone else already has.
“Skyking, Skyking…..” The majestic Boeing E-3 Sentry.