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Flying Cell Towers Monitor US Phones

FILE - A Cessna 182 tows a glider plane.

According to a report published in Friday’s Wall Street Journal, the U.S. government is using sophisticated equipment mounted on small aircraft to monitor and collect data about cellphone conversations and locations, looking for criminal activity.

The paper says the U.S. Marshals, the Department of Justice service responsible for the pursuit of fugitives, has used small airplanes such as the popular Cessna 182 equipped with devices similar to those on cell phone towers.

The devices, called ‘dirtboxes,’ trick cell phones to connect calls through them, rather than through a nearby cell tower. While the plane is flying within the phone’s reach, all calls pass through the ‘dirtbox,’ allowing operators to sift through data and determine which are important to monitor.

Sources say ‘dirtboxes’ collect data from cell phones even if they are not in use, but “let go” of the information if operators determine the phone does not belong to a suspect. They also say the program already helped apprehend drug dealers and other fugitives.

The Wall Street Journal says the planes operate in at least five major cities but could cover most of the U.S.

Critics say the program is similar to the much maligned National Security Agency’s surveillance programs which were exposed by government whistleblower Edward Snowden.