The US Justice Department has been using airplanes to steal data from the mobile phones of thousands of innocent Americans while hunting for criminal suspects, says a report from The Wall Street Journal.

The spy program called ”The US Marshals Service Program” is carried out by the Technical Operations Group of the U.S. Marshals Service and has been operational since 2007. They use Cessna Aircraft to collect data from cellphones. The aircraft carry “dirtboxes” which mimic the cell towers of big telecom companies. These dirtboxes identify themselves as being the strongest and closest cell towers and trick cell phones to switch over to them and report their unique registration and location information. Even phones having encryption such as the iPhone 6 are not spared.

The Cessna surveillance aircraft operate from at least five big metro airports of the US and cover most of the country’s population. This way, the investigators collect sensitive user data from cell phones of a huge number of people while flying overhead, without their knowledge. The dirtbox sifts through all the information gathered, retains the information of suspects and “lets go” of the info of others.

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This information about the US spy program has neither been confirmed nor denied by a DOJ official and those in the know about the program have not divulged info about the duration or frequency of such surveillance flights but confirmed that they took place “on a regular basis”. Once the cell phone of a suspect is identified, his location can be pinpointed within 10 feet, down to the room they are present in. Now apart from stealing information, the new technology enables jamming the signals and extracting photos and texts from the suspect’s cell phone.

The process of getting cell tower information from a cellular network company for locating a suspect such as fugitives and drug dealers is slow and not very accurate. So the government has devised this program so that it can directly get this information. A person familiar with this surveillance program said,” What is done on U.S. soil is completely legal, whether it should be done is a separate question.”