New Documents Reveal Details of Federal Aerial Surveillance Programs

cessna-flying-over-a-cityBy Derrick Broze

New documents reveal that the several federal agencies have been operating surveillance flights over the United States since at least 2009.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation recently received new records related to the U.S. Marshals aerial surveillance program. The EFF filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Department of Justice shortly after The Wall Street Journal revealed a cell-phone monitoring program operated by the U.S. Marshals Service. The program involved the Marshals using Cessna planes mounted with cell site simulators, also known as  “Stingrays” or “dirtboxes”.

The EFF describes the Stingray as “a brand name of an IMSI (International Mobile Subscriber Identity) Catcher targeted and sold to law enforcement. A Stingray works by masquerading as a cellphone tower– to which your mobile phone sends signals to every 7 to 15 seconds whether you are on a call or not– and tricks your phone into connecting to it.”

The device that is used for the Marshals aerial surveillance program is made by Digital Receiver Technology (DRT), which is where it gets the name “dirt box.” The dirt boxes are supposed to be used for criminal investigations, but the EFF and the American Civil Liberties Union say the devices can collect data from tens of thousands of innocent people on each flight.

The documents obtained by the EFF come from the U.S. Marshals, FBI, CIA, and the DOJ’s Criminal Division. Most of the information released is heavily redacted but there are some new details on how these programs are being operated. The EFF writes:

The FBI produced the majority of the records—hundreds of pages of heavily redacted material. The documents are mostly internal emails and presentations going as far back as 2009, including discussions between FBI lawyers and the Operational Technology Division (OTD), which develops and oversees the FBI’s surveillance techniques. The documents paint a picture that is similar to the one that has emerged around stingrays and IMSI catchers more generally: the FBI began testing and then using dirtboxes on planes without any overarching policy or legal guidance on their place in investigations.

A series of emails from June 2014 show FBI lawyers preparing a briefing for senators who were demanding more information regarding reports that the FBI was using planes with surveillance equipment. The lawyers had trouble finding details on the surveillance flights, ultimately releasing information on only five missions. These missions were carried using equipment owned by the FBI, not the Marshals.

“Although the FBI’s ‘first successful airborne geolocation mission involving cellular technology’ apparently occurred sometime in 2009, even as late as April 2014 lawyers from the FBI’s Office of General Counsel were discussing the need to develop a ‘coordinated policy’ and ‘determine any legal concerns,’” the EFF writes.

The DOJ only released a single policy document from the Marshals’ Technical Operations Group (TOG) that discusses the TOG’s organization and procedures. As the EFF notes, there has been extensive reporting in the public domain on the Marshals’ use of dirtboxes. The lack of a larger paper trail detailing the program seems to indicate a massive lack of oversight or a failure by the DOJ to produce all the necessary documentation.

The new documents help paint a clearer picture of how the federal government is using surveillance devices such as Stingrays and dirtboxes. Since 2014, the public has slowly been learning of the true depth of the aerial surveillance state.

In September 2015, a report from The North Star Post exposed the existence of a fleet of surveillance aircraft operated by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The planes fly over various locations within the United States, as well as across foreign destinations. The Post reported that photos of DEA planes appear to show cell site simulator technology, or advanced imaging technology, attached to the body of the aircraft. This would confirm suspicions that these aircraft are outfitted with dirtboxes.

In June 2015, Anti Media also reported on the existence of at least 100 surveillance planes operated by the FBI — planes managed by fake front companies rarely granted judicial approval for such actions. Some of these companies include FVX Research, KQM Aviation, NBR Aviation, and PXW Services. Documents from the FBI previously revealed that the bureau flew surveillance planes with thermal imaging equipment over Baltimore and Ferguson during highly-publicized protests.

The North Star Post also recently revealed that the National Guard is operating a fleet of highly capable C-26 surveillance aircraft, operated by front company “Air Cerberus Inc.” The company quite clearly traces back to the National Guard Bureau headquarters.

The capabilities of the dirtboxes and Stingrays are largely unknown to the public. In December 2015, a whistleblower leaked a manual detailing how many of these devices operate. One device, known as Windjammer, has an eight-mile range, but it is highly likely that other devices, with a larger range, are in existence.

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What is the American public to do about the increasing Aerial Surveillance State? How can we find freedom in a world without privacy? The first step towards freedom is to educate yourself about the dangers posed by government and corporate entities. From there we can begin to find other like-minds and organize communities that focus on solutions to the Surveillance State and many other threats to our freedom.

Image Credit

Derrick Broze is an investigative journalist and liberty activist. He is the Lead Investigative Reporter for and the founder of the Follow him on Twitter.

Derrick is available for interviews.

This article may be freely reposted in part or in full with author attribution and source link.

  • emmanuelozon

    So when did the FBI begin flying over Japan? The aircraft registration number clearly shows this Cessna 172 is from Japan.

  • Westcoastliberal

    The FCC requires a license to operate a transmitter using more than 100 milliwatts of power (which isn’t much). So looks to me as if all the LEO that operate these fake cell towers are in violation of federal law. The ACLU should look into this.

  • gawain

    My wife and I were sitting outside enjoying a cuppa joe when 3 large black helicopters with some sort of long pointed equipment sticking our of the noses and my wife’s phone turned off then back on while we were both watching. The choppers were loud and low.

  • SpaghettiWestern

    You need to know that North Star Post is disinfo — which means releasing both true & false info. The founder is former military.
    Always ponder motive for stories from it.

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