March 15, 2015
A new cellphone spying disclosure brings a whole new meaning to “Can you hear me now?” The new allegations were leveled by National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden and reported by the Wall Street Journal. The latest report confirms that the US Marshals Service through its parent agency, the Department of Justice (DOJ), teamed with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) using CIA technology to trick cell phones into using fake cellphone towers installed on Marshals Service planes.
The CIA worked jointly with defense-contracting firms to developed “Dirtboxes or Stingray” surveillance technology, which is capable of capturing thousands of cell phone exchanges at the same time. The government admits the “technology” can cause dropped calls or briefly interfere with a users’ ability to make or receive phone calls—“Hence can you hear me now?”
According to the Department of Justice, the US Marshals Service used the cellphone dragnet that knowingly scooped up thousands of phone conversations in an effort to conduct allegedly lawful ongoing criminal investigations. A Justice official privately admitted that there are cases in which investigators gained possession of information not covered by warrants, but oftentimes throw it out or seek a judge’s approval before proceeding with the legal case.
The surveillance devices in question are generically referred to as “Stingrays or Dirt Boxes” and are purportedly manufactured by the Harris Corporation, a company with ties to the US defense industry.
The “Stingrays” trick cell phones into sending communications in an unencrypted format to the phony cell towers where the conversations can be routed to surveillance centers for processing and analysis. It has been reported that the “Stingrays” also interfere with customers making and receiving calls by causing connection delays or dropped calls.
Both the DOJ and CIA claim they are conforming with the law, but by couching their work in the “smoke and mirrors” of “national security” or by using “sources and methods” arguments to prevent disclosure, it is difficult to determine the scope and impact the operations will have on American’s personal privacy.
The American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) website describes the government’s overreach. “Stingrays, also known as ‘cell site simulators’ or ‘IMSI catchers,’ are invasive cell phone surveillance devices that mimic cell phone towers and send out signals to trick cell phones in the area into transmitting their locations and identifying information. When used to track a suspect’s cell phone, they also gather information about the phones of countless bystanders who happen to be nearby. The ACLU has uncovered evidence that federal and local law enforcement agencies are actively trying to conceal their use from public scrutiny, and we are continuing to push for transparency and reform.”
The ACLU recognizes that federal law needs to be modernized to keep up with new technology in order to protect the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendment protections of the Constitution. But warned that “the government must be open about the use of these powerful tools, and put in place rules on their usage to protect people’s Fourth Amendment rights (search and seizure) and to prevent abuse.”
“[The new information about the CIA] certainly raises troubling questions,” Nathan Wessler, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union told Newsweek. “What legal authority are they using? Do they get warrants? If not, why? What are they doing to protect bystanders’ privacy?”
Taking this latest revelation a step further, Snowden also disclosed that the CIA and other federal agencies have spent five years and millions of taxpayer dollars in an effort to crack the encryption of Apple products. Behind the scenes, Apple has criticized the government’s actions and claims they are unwilling to aid government surveillance by “softening” its encryption or allowing a “backdoor” into its operating systems that millions of consumers pay a much steeper price tag for added security.
CEO of Apple, Tim Cook said earlier this year; “It is a cop-out to say: choose between privacy or security. There is no reason why customers should have to select one. There is no reason not to have both. We shouldn’t give in to scare-mongering.”
But Snowden says the CIA has already found its own access point to Apple’s OSX software. Unbeknownst to many American’s, the CIA operates its own joint venture firm, In-Q-Tel, to invest in the latest technologies and garner an interest or control of developing technologies (Read In-Q-Tel article here).
The ACLU and Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) recently filed suit against the DOJ and US Marshals Service for seizing evidence of cell phone data collected from CIA assisted surveillance assets by Florida law enforcement agencies – the cell phone records had been ordered by a Florida State judge to be turned-over to ACLU attorneys, but on the day of the transfer US Marshals personnel seized the records claiming the state of Florida police officer who had obtained the records was actually a deputized US federal officer – despite the fact he purportedly had no such credentials at the time of his surveillance, when the court ordered the turnover, or at the time the assertions were made by the US Marshals Service. No such deputizing designation was ever filed with the court when the surveillance was authorized or since.
It appears this cell phone monitoring is not isolated to Florida as residents of the nation’s capitol have been complaining about “phony cell phone towers” that continue to spring-up throughout Washington, DC. No one claims ownership, but they sit there actively and passively capturing cell phone calls on all who venture within their reach.
Americans question how DOJ/CIA/US Marshals Service can be trusted to protect American’s privacy rights with the use of such technology when there is no “check and balance?”
The newest mass data collection has sparked furor from journalists to civil liberty groups who are reminding the US government that the CIA is strictly forbidden from operating inside the US.
In fact, by denying to produce files under a FOIA request from this reporter regarding CIA files on deceased Rolling Stone national security reporter Michael Hastings, the CIA asserted that its charter precludes it from operating in the U.S., but cleverly, CIA did not deny that it did not have files. (View FOIA file and other pictures in SD6 video above)
The CIA responded to a written request by stating it will provide some information on Mr. Hastings, but declined to answer any questions regarding connections between Mr. Hastings, jailed journalist Barrett Brown or Reddit’s deceased founder, Aaron Schwarz. Interestingly, the CIA asserted federal law, which prohibits it from spying on Americans as the reason for not responding to FOIAs on Brown and Schwarz, but failed to explain why it had a file on Hastings.
United States law specifically forbids Federal intelligence agencies and the military intelligence agencies – the National Security Agency (NSA), the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGIA), and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) from conducting surveillance operations within the United States. Furthermore, 50 United States Code §3039 only authorizes Federal intelligence agencies to operate with US or Federal law enforcement agencies NOT state … and only in monitoring foreign citizens outside the U.S.
So what gives?
A Justice Department spokesman explained that the US Marshals Service’s techniques are “carried out consistent with federal law, and are subject to court approval.” They also claimed that they do not conduct “domestic surveillance, intelligence gathering, or any type of bulk data collection… The agency also doesn’t gather any intelligence on behalf of U.S. spy agencies.” One must wonder if they had heard of Edward Snowden prior to making such a claim?
While Congress seems unconcerned with invasive laws or the interpretations of such laws by federal agencies to the detriment of Americans, the federal government has revised rules and demanded Lavabit, a technology firm, to turnover private passwords and security keys to federal investigators (link here).
Lavabit, an encrypted email service provider, gained unwanted notoriety by being the service that once delivered NSA leaker Ed Snowden’s secure emails. Lavabit defied a Department of Justice demand to turnover its encryption key for secure users by closing shop. As the feds latest privacy target the secure email provider shuttered operations rather than give up the encryption codes to its 400,000 subscribers, as Lavabit’s founder, Ladar Levison, made the difficult financial decision based on ethical concerns for his clients.
The search warrant revealed that the government demanded “all information necessary to decrypt communications sent to or from the Lavabit e-mail account [redacted] including encryption keys and SSL keys.”
That court ruling put into motion a plan that Levison said he made in the presence of his attorney that he would rather than shutter his company than sellout his clients. “I have been forced to make a difficult decision: to become complicit in crimes against the American people or walk away from nearly ten years of hard work by shutting down Lavabit,” he explained.
On top of that a virtual gag order was placed on the case forcing the young entrepreneur to carefully construct his response to the media. “We’ve already started preparing the paperwork needed to continue to fight for the Constitution in the Circuit Court of Appeals. A favorable decision would allow me resurrect Lavabit as an American company.”
Levison explained the situation the best he could; “This experience has taught me one very important lesson: without congressional action or a strong judicial precedent, I would strongly recommend against anyone trusting their private data to a company with physical ties to the United States.”
The CIA did not respond to requests for this article.
© Copyright 2015 Kimberly Dvorak All Rights Reserved.