A secret U.S. spy program used fake cell phone towers attached to airplanes to scan citizens' cell phones and collect their data, the Wall Street Journal reports.

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What the hell.

The scheme, carried out by the Technical Operations Group of the U.S. Marshals, uses devices known as "dirtboxes" to mimic powerful cell tower signs. These dirtboxes are strong enough to trick phones to automatically switch over to their signals, even if a real tower is nearby. The small-winged airplanes operate from at least five major airports, and they can fly over most of the U.S.

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The way this is being carried out involves bogarting a ton of other peoples' data, since the planes scoop up unique registration information from everyone carrying their phone in the area, sifting through it, and identifying their target before abandoning it. Sources say data is "let go" after they've determined that a phone does not belong a suspect, but what that means exactly is unclear.

When these planes go over cities, they cast an insanely broad airplane data dragnet that sucks up information from phones even if they're not in use:

The U.S. Marshals Service program, which became fully functional around 2007, operates Cessna aircraft from at least five metropolitan-area airports, with a flying range covering most of the U.S. population, according to people familiar with the program.

Planes are equipped with devices—some known as "dirtboxes" to law-enforcement officials because of the initials of the Boeing Co. unit that produces them—which mimic cell towers of large telecommunications firms and trick cellphones into reporting their unique registration information.

The technology in the two-foot-square device enables investigators to scoop data from tens of thousands of cellphones in a single flight, collecting their identifying information and general location, these people said.

The details revealed in the WSJ article are nuts: One source said connecting to the fake roving towers can briefly disconnect calls, and that authorities were trying to figure out a way to make sure it didn't mess up calls to 911.

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The sources said that these sneaky spy planes have already gotten results, helping catch drug dealers and killers, but did not name names.

If the details in the WSJ are accurate, this program has disturbing similarities to the NSA surveillance programs exposed last year.

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American Civil Liberties Union chief technologist Christopher Soghoian told the WSJ that this was "a dragnet surveillance program. It's inexcusable and it's likely—to the extent judges are authorizing it—[that] they have no idea of the scale of it."

"There are some serious and troubling legal questions about this program," EFF Staff Attorney Hanni Fakhoury told me. "It's important to note this is very different from the government getting this information from a phone company. In the last few months, many state courts and legislatures have required law enforcement get a probable cause search warrant to use these devices. The US Marshals should explain how this program works and what kind of court authorization, if any, they're obtaining to fly planes with 'dirtboxes.'"

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That another instance of a large-scale, secret surveillance program from the U.S. government has been exposed will undoubtedly continue to corrode the public's faith in the government's commitment to protecting privacy.

The fake phone tower signals used work even on phones with encryption, like the iPhone 6, so there's virtually no way phone makers could've prevented this from happening.

The Justice Department has neither confirmed or denied the WSJ report. I reached out to the Justice Department and it declined to comment.

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[Wall Street Journal]