Texas National Guard installed cellphone devices on surveillance planes, leaving some quarters to question if such move has privacy and constitutional due process concerns with the use of such technology.
For such project, the Texas National Guard spent a whopping $373,000 last year to install such technology meant to serve as cellphone eavesdropping devices in secret surveillance aircraft.
Maryland-based Digital Receiver Technology Inc. Or DRT was tapped to install two of its DRT 1301C “portable receiver systems” in National Guard aircraft in partnership with the Drug Enforcement Administration. The contract stipulates that the “dirt boxes” are to be used for “investigative case analytical support” in counternarcotics operations. The devices were bought using state drug-asset forfeiture money.
Dirt boxes can do a lot- they can mimic cellphone towers by tricking every smartphone within a geographic area of up to one-third of a mile to connect with the technology. Cellphone users or telecom companies usually are not aware of the existence of such devices.
The devices also serve as cell-site simulators and can be used from land or air and are capable of intercepting the user’s location, phone numbers dialed, text messages and photos as well as recording or listening to phone calls.
Some privacy and civil liberties advocates are raising serious issues with the use of said devices, however. They describe the dirt boxes as a ”digital dragnet” because it is almost impossible for the government to avoid intercepting personal information from innocent cell phone users while on the mission to pursue their investigative target.
The eavesdropping devices were installed in two RC-26 surveillance planes used for counternarcotics operations
The Wall Street Journal exposed in a story in 2014 that claims the U.S. Marshals Service had utilized dirt boxes from a small Cessna aircraft to find fugitives. The CIA supplied the equipment and training. However, some officials inside the U.S. Justice Department expressed concerns that the activity was illegal.
Liberals took the issue to raise civil liberties issues, too, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the ACLU and the Electronic Privacy Information Center, and some lawmakers in Washington, D.C.
The use of such technology by law enforcement is often times regarded as legal when used against Americans with a warrant. The Texas Department of Public Safety has also bought covert surveillance equipment from a DRT competitor, Harris Corp.
Texas National Guard is a military force, not law enforcement. The Justice Department in 2015 issued guidelines for federal law enforcement agencies requiring that a probable cause warrant should be obtained first from a judge before they could legally use such technology.
Democratic state Representative Cesar Blanco, a former Navy intelligence analyst emphasized that there are big privacy and constitutional due process concerns with the technology. He said there has to be an oversight body to take care of the citizens of Texas.
It is possible that the dirt boxes are being utilized at the Texas Mexico border, where the Texas National Guard has participated in border security and counternarcotics missions since 1989.