By Ali Winston.
The Los Angeles and Chicago police departments have acquired “dirt boxes” – military surveillance technology that can intercept data, calls and text messages from hundreds of cellphones simultaneously, as well as jam transmissions from a device, according to documents obtained by Reveal.
The purchase of the equipment in two of the largest U.S. cities raises questions about the migration of interception technology favored by the National Security Agency and the Pentagon to local police departments. The use of this surveillance technology by domestic law enforcement – which has not been reported previously – is another striking example of how military technology is flooding local agencies.
The sophisticated surveillance equipment, manufactured by Digital Receiver Technology Inc., a Maryland company acquired by The Boeing Co. in 2008, provides a more powerful class of cell-site simulator than the more widely used StingRay devices produced by Harris Corp., which require an upgrade to intercept communications and data transmissions. According to Digital Receiver Technology’sdocumentation, its devices are capable of breaking encryption on communications from 200 cellphones simultaneously across state-of-the-art 4G LTE frequencies used for rapid data transmission by the latest generation of smartphones.
In the field, Digital Receiver Technology’s devices operate as fake cellphone towers, forcing all cellphones in their range to use their signal to transmit information. As the information passes through the cell-site simulator, the device simultaneously breaks the encryption on the voice and data transmissions of dozens of cellphones.
“With DRT, if you put one of these on an airplane and fly them around, you can find all sorts of info about potentially thousands of people,” said Freddy Martinez, an activist who has sued the Chicago Police Department multiple times for records on its use of cell-site simulators. “That includes voice content, who they’re calling, what data they’re sending. It’s like a StingRay on steroids.”