How The Texas National Guard Has Been Snooping On Cell Data From The Skies

The practice is raising concerns among civil liberties advocates and lawmakers alike.

By Alexandra HartNovember 15, 2017 2:22 pm

Most average citizens would probably assume they’re not the target of government snooping – unless you’re, say, an aspiring terrorist, drug trafficker or otherwise up to no good.

But a new investigation from the Texas Observer found that Texas paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for technology to eavesdrop on smartphones within a certain geographic area – and unintended targets could have been swept up in that surveillance as well. G.W. Schulz, who co-reported the story, says these “portable receiver systems” – nicknamed dirt boxes – work by emulating cell phone towers.

“If a government deploys technology, it says to all the cell phone devices in a certain area to treat that dirt box as the nearest available cell phone tower,” he says. “So the telecom companies, for the most part, and the cell user – you and I, the customers – don’t know this activity is occurring. As far as we know, we’re connecting to the nearest cell tower.”

He says these devices are mobile and can be deployed in patrol cars. Or, in the case of the Texas National Guard, in aircraft. That gives them a significant range, and a significant chance of picking up on non-targeted devices.

“Lets say you had the unique identifying number for a smart phone, which is essentially its social security number,” Schulz says. “You can target that phone and what the government says it often will do is seize onto that phone and then try to drop any other phones associated wit that area, assuming that they’re innocent.”

The issue, Schulz says, is that the agencies that use this technology are typically very secretive about how they collect and use the data.

“The Texas Military department didn’t give us a lot of details about how they’re using this technology,” he says. “That’s been consistently the issue with these devices and with the governments use of them.”