The U.S. Marshals Service has a fleet of secret spy planes that can mimic cellphone towers as they search for criminal suspects.

The planes are able to collect data from tens of thousands of cellphones in a single flight, the Wall Street Journal (sub. req.) says in a report relying on anonymous sources. Identifying and location information are collected, allowing the plane to locate a suspect within about 10 feet. Once a suspect is located, data from other cellphones is let go.

The technology has also been used overseas to track terrorism suspects.

The Washington Post summarized the Wall Street Journal story and got confirmation of the program from two anonymous sources.

An unnamed Justice Department official would not confirm or deny the program when contacted by the newspapers. The official did say that Justice Department agencies abide by federal law. “In deploying any such equipment or tactics our federal law enforcement agencies comply with federal law, including by seeking court approval,” the official said. The U.S. Marshals Service is part of the Justice Department.

Chris Soghoian, a technologist and analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union, criticized the program in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. It’s “a dragnet surveillance program,” he said. “It’s inexcusable and it’s likely—to the extent judges are authorizing it—[that] they have no idea of the scale of it.”

Adam Lee Nemann
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Trial and Defense Attorney, Adjunct Professor of Law at Capital University, founder of Nemann Law Offices

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