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Prall: The dirt on dirtboxes

BY JACOB PRALL | NOVEMBER 19, 2014 5:00 AM

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For the last seven years, U.S. skies have been a little dirtier. This time, carbon emissions aren’t to blame. You can thank the Justice Department.

They’re called “Dirtboxes” by law-enforcement officers. On Nov. 13, the Wall Street Journal broke the story that single-pilot Cessna planes have been flying over our heads, with Dirtboxes attached to their underbelly. Dirtboxes pose as cell towers, and they collect cell-phone data (dirt) indiscriminately from tens of thousands of people at a time.

U.S. marshals and other law-enforcement officials have used this method of mass snooping since 2007. For seven years, the practice has been kept secret. The ACLU is poised to sue the Justice Department over this revelation, because when it requests the data from these flyovers, the federal government seizes the records.

One plane doesn’t seem like a big deal, but there are at least five in operation, based in metropolitan areas, with a flight range large enough to cover most of the U.S. population. Domestic espionage has been a serious problem as our world surges into a new, networked era.

When the government uses these sorts of tactics to elicit personal data, it does so with no pretense. The Bill of Rights means nothing when the boundaries of privacy to information no longer exist.

There are further reaching social consequences as well. This sort of “guilty until proven innocent” method of gathering intelligence sows the seeds of distrust among the people and those sworn to protect them. With the methodology of police forces across the United States under scrutiny, the bridge between law enforcement and citizenry is on fire.

Invasions of privacy aren’t going to tamper the blaze. It is up to the federal government to create laws restricting federal power domestically. A difficult task, like asking a boxer to use less force in the ring. It’s difficult but not impossible. What will help is general outcry from the public. This sort of blanket surveillance is usually justified on the grounds of security, but this project doesn’t seem to follow that logic. The advantage of this practice is that a court order is not necessary to obtain cellular information, as it normally would be. The Justice Department is skipping over the “Justice” part of the system, like it is some sort of middleman. The court is an important check on executive powers, in all levels of government.

What has been done with the information collected is unknown, as a tight lid as been shut on information regarding the unlawful collection of cell records. We can only hope that this dirt on the Feds will be enough to kill the Dirtboxes.


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