Last year, military surveillance aircraft in Texas were outfitted with devices designed to spy on cellphones, including their location, numbers dialed, text messages and photos and even the content of their calls, The Texas Observer reports. The newspaper obtained documents between the Texas National Guard, the DEA and a Maryland-based company called Digital Receiver Technology (DRT) outlining a $373,000 contract to install cellphone surveillance software on the planes as part of anti-drug trafficking operations. The money reportedly came from Texas drug asset forfeiture funds.
Similar to controversial stingray devices, DRT’s systems—nicknamed “dirt boxes”—mimic cellphone towers, connecting to every smartphone within a specific area. Because they connect with all smartphones, it’s nearly impossible to avoid collecting private data from people who aren’t suspects, but just happen to be in the target area.
Privacy advocates have long derided cell-site simulators because they operate in secrecy. Authorities have fought hard to withhold information on how much data stingrays collect, even dropping charges rather than revealing information about the technology. The Justice Department, however, has policies for the use of such devices by federal agencies and police departments that partner with them: officials must secure a warrant before using them in criminal investigations and must delete all data on users not targeted within 30 days. The rules do not apply to “national security” operations.
The two National Guard RC-26 planes in question are reportedly used for counternarcotics operations at the US-Mexico border. Asked whether the militia force had the authority to obtain warrants for arrests or surveillance, a Texas National Guard spokesperson told the Observer, “Our current supporting roles do not include arrest or law enforcement authorizations.”
“These DRT boxes are far more capable than the old Stingrays,” Austin attorney Scott Mccullough told the Observer. “The old-style Stingrays were not able to capture content. Guess what? The DRT box is… These newer ones get everything.”