With or Without Section 215, Mass Surveillance of Cell Phones is Pervasive


The flight pattern of an FBI plane over Baltimore on May 2, the day after a riot erupted during the Freddie Gray demonstration. From the Washington Post.

Snowden’s piece in the The New York Times yesterday is a fitting epilog to the vulgar, cynical performance of democracy we have just been subjected to these past few days, wherein Congress and the commentariat rechristened The Patriot Act as The Freedom Act and called it NSA reform. This “victory lap” in The Times as some are seeing it, is vintage Snowden, kitted out with the by now customary hypeinfantilizing civics lesson, and hat tip to the private sector, where, according to Ed “progress has come even more quickly [than in government]” via “pioneering companies like Apple.”

“Ending the mass surveillance of private phone calls under the Patriot Act is a historic victory for the rights of every citizen” declared Ed, a statement which would be an outright lie were it not for the lawyer-like “under the Patriot Act” qualifier. Of course everything under The Patriot Act has ended, because the Patriot Act has expired. As Ed most certainly knows, mass surveillance of private phone calls is doing just fine.

The Freedom Act doesn’t end bulk collection of phone data. It simply delegates it to phone companies, pays them for the service and strengthens their immunity from the legal consequences of colluding with the government. The NSA won’t have the same unfettered access it has to its own database, but can still access records tens of thousands at a time with the FISA rubber stamp of a search “selector” — a phone number, email address, key word, company name etc — associated with international terrorism.  If you’re really optimistic, you could call the extra layer of busywork for the NSA an improvement, if only very small, were the NSA the single agency seizing phone data without warrants. However, that’s far from the case as I’ll explain further on.

But first, let’s just fondly recall the past few days, and the difficulty the pseudo-reforms of The Freedom Act posed for Snowden industry professionals. Since The Snowden Spectacle is the purest astroturf, this crew has always been somewhat schizophrenic, alternately performing disgust with government and media elites and starry-eyed elation every time some loathsome government or media figure jumped on their bandwagon. It is this schizophrenia that gives astroturf its power over rubes.

However, the happy face and sad face of Snowden professionals are usually worn on different days. So it was highly entertaining to watch Greenwald and the gang hyperventilating about Snowden getting us all to this historic occasion — Congress actually deliberating reform! — while with their patented knowing knowingness they lamented how predictably shitty the resulting “reform” of this historic moment was. We reached peak Snowden Show with the hyping of  the Patriot Act’s expiration —  as if it promised something other than a couple days ostensible relief from NSA snooping, which would resume intact for up to six months once the Freedom Act passed.

Undoubtedly, all the pros breathlessly hyping this Snowden-gotten gift had to know this respite was to be brief, but then, the heady combo of hype and blatant lies of omission is reflexive at this point. Without it, there’s just a bunch of old files saying essentially the same thing — the NSA collects and stores your data in bulk — and the money and astroturf in that runs out very quickly. What they are scrupulously not saying, is how many entities are watching you and what they’re doing with the information they get. As luck would have it, though, the AP published its FBI spy planes story and in so doing hinted at the true scale of the problem.

For right now, let’s put aside the disclosures in the same article about video surveillance. Video surveillance may yet be our worst nightmare, but in the interest of showing just how much a narrow focus on the NSA omits, let’s contend simply with what the article said about cell phones and spy planes:

the aircraft are equipped with…technology capable of tracking thousands of cellphones…The FBI says the planes are not equipped or used for bulk collection activities or mass surveillance. The surveillance equipment is used for ongoing investigations…

The Drug Enforcement Administration has its own planes, also registered to fake companies, according to a 2011 Justice Department inspector general report. At the time, the DEA had 92 aircraft in its fleet. And since 2007, the U.S. Marshals Service has operated an aerial surveillance program with its own fleet equipped with technology that can capture data from thousands of cellphones, the Wall Street Journal reported last year.

That’s quite a lot of spy planes, spread over the three Federal agencies wouldn’t you say? And the FBI guy who says they’re not used for bulk collection activities or mass surveillance is almost certainly lying. If you follow the leads the article provides and bone up on the U.S. Marshals spy plane program — which the Wall Street Journal reported on in November of last year and March  — you will learn that:

1. It began development at least as far back as 2005, in connection with the CIA, which offered a great deal of technical and financial support in developing the technology for both intercepting calls and scooping up cell phone data.

2. The program operates planes that fly from five U.S. cities, with a flying range covering most of the U.S. population.

3. The cellphone-tower emulation  system the planes use — which is extremely similar, if not identical, to the “dirtbox” system the FBI planes use — can review data from tens of thousands of phones in a single flight.

4. The U.S. Marshals planes provide data to other agencies in the Department of Justice — which would include the FBI, DEA, ATF etc — as well as assist local police departments with their own surveillance efforts.

There is quite a lot of interesting information here. Even without consideration of the FBI and DEA spy planes, it surely confirms enough mass surveillance of cell phones to render the entire Patriot Act expiration show and Snowden’s “victory lap” both ridiculous and mendacious. Of particular interest, though, is the deputizing of the Marshals Service by the CIA. The Wall Street Journal reported that law-enforcement officials called the cooperation between technical experts at the two agencies a “marriage.”

Of course, as we all know — *eyeroll* — the CIA is not supposed to involve itself in domestic surveillance. But anyone familiar with the CIA’s deputizing of the NYPD for multi-state stalking of Muslims knows what bullshit that is. Still, the U.S. Marshals service is quite a deputy for the CIA to have, especially given the extent to which the Marshals — who are basically cops for the Federal Court and Prison system  — work with local police departments. This federalizing of local police is nothing new, but this adds insight into the degree of penetration and the very high priority it clearly is for the Intelligence Community.

Which brings us around to local police, and the phone-snooping capabilities they have even without the assistance of Federal agencies. According to USA Today, at least 25 police forces use a Stingray, which is a suitcase-sized device that, like the “dirtboxes” in the Federal spy planes, emulates a cell tower. It’s typically mounted in a vehicle and tricks all nearby phones into connecting to it and feeding data to police.  USA Today also reported that a large number of US police forces request tower dumps from service providers, which give all the phone data for a particular cell tower.

To get a Stingray, a police department must sign a lengthy non-disclosure agreement kept by the FBI, stating that they will not reveal any information about the device’s capabilities or use. According to the ACLU

The result is that members of the public, judges, and defense attorneys are denied basic information about local cops’ use of invasive surveillance gear that can sweep up sensitive location data about hundreds of peoples’ cell phones.

The ACLU claims the FBI intervenes and invokes the non-disclosure agreement  when the ACLU sues local agencies for records about Stingray use.

Local police forces also do aerial surveillance via their own planes and drones and while these seem primarily dedicated to video capture, any department with a Stingray can put it in the air.  There is also nothing but cost preventing police from securing the more powerful dirtboxes the feds use. They are available from Digital Receiver Technology (DRT), a Boeing subsidiary and the basis for the “D[i]RTbox” nickname. Considering that this technology was reportedly developed in-house by the CIA and U.S. Marshals, one wonders how it became the property of a private company which then became the property of Boeing.

Of course this cell phone data being hoovered up by federal, state and local cops is useless without something to make sense of it, so naturally there is a robust business in so-called digital forensics, analysis enabled by software that integrates phone and computer data with records databases and other surveillance systems, such as license plate scanners, to plot locations, graph relationships, recognize patterns, visualize timelines, identify social hierarchies and otherwise connect dots.

One of these products is Sentinal Visualizer, manufactured by the FMS Advanced Systems Group, which tellingly names In-Q-Tel, the venture capital arm of the CIA, as a partner. BlackBag is another digital forensics company providing phone data analysis software. It too is supported by In-Q-Tel. There is no evidence of In-Q-Tel support for SecureView by the Susteen Company, but according to Susteen, the company created SecureView in response to feature requests from the FBI. The website brags of use by the Department of Justice, the Border Patrol, and The US Marshals Office. Naturally, In-Q-Tel’s  jewel, Palantir, also has a hand in this pie, as demonstrated by this sales video featuring one of its satisfied clients, the Los Angeles Police Department, a user of spy planes and owner of a Homeland Security funded Stingray.

The above-named companies are just a fraction of the business being done in this realm, and raise questions about the money being made from mass surveillance, the size of the surveillance economy, and the extent to which profit is driving the proliferation and use of these technologies. It also raises questions about the extent to which this economy socializes risk via In-Q-Tel and government funding and privatizes gains for defense contractors like Boeing. But don’t expect any of this to be mulled over by the Snowden crew, intent as they are on touting private innovation as the cure to state-created ills. If Snowden ever leaked on his last employer — security contractor Booz Allen — I certainly missed it.

The CIA is another former employer that Snowden never blows whistles on, which seems particularly odd now in light of the CIA’s critical role in developing the technology that makes mass phone surveillance by plane possible, and its subsidies to companies that produce the software that makes sense of the data gathered in this way. But Ed is a man of his word, and early on he disclosed why he hadn’t and wouldn’t leak on the CIA:

Most of the secrets the CIA has are about people, not machines and systems, so I didn’t feel comfortable with disclosures that I thought could endanger anyone.

So I guess it’s just a rumor that the CIA has done Signals Intelligence for years. This presentation by CIA CTO Ira Hunt about how the CIA uses machines and systems must be a hoax. Seems legit.


This, from Kevin Gosztola, of Fire Dog Lake, is too hilarious to keep to myself. Sometimes the astroturf is so crude, so ridiculous, it’s funny.

When President Barack Obama signed the USA Freedom Act, it did not end bulk data collection or mass surveillance programs. It did not address many of the policies, practices or programs of the NSA, which NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed. It did not sharply limit surveillance nor was it an anti-surveillance law. The USA Freedom Act renewed Patriot Act provisions, which had sunset days ago. However, it is difficult to disagree with Snowden’s generally optimistic assessment.

Cynical knowing knowingness and starry-eyed credulity all in the same paragraph. Gosztola goes on to align himself even more with Snowden’s misleading optimism, on the grounds that, for all its faults, The Freedom Act is the first bill to attempt reform of the NSA in forty years!

This is what I mean when I say the Snowden Spectacle mandates stupidity.

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36 Responses to With or Without Section 215, Mass Surveillance of Cell Phones is Pervasive

  1. b-psycho says:

    Re: The scale of the surveillance economy, I wonder the economic effect if, hypothetically, that spending were wiped out. Maybe it’s just how I think, but the deeper that shit goes the more it resembles in part a broader version of the same reason why it’s basically impossible to close a military base.

  2. cripes says:

    27- year old chicago man has obtained documents by lawsuit showing CPD has had stingrays since about 2007 and uses them without any public disclosure, rules or procedures that would safeguard 4th amendment rights. As if there were such a thing.

    Actually, they drive around in their black Ford Expeditions bristling with tracking gear like something from a Get Smart episode, but less well, secret.

    So, yeah.

  3. diane says:

    The Susteen/SecureView and Palantar sales video links are linking to the BlackBag link instead.

    Speaking of which (BlackBag), UUUGH, it sounds as if they may have the capability (or perhaps it’s deliberate sales hype?) to also surveil computers, let alone cellphones:

    BlackLight is a multi-platform forensic analysis tool that allows examiners to quickly and intuitively analyze digital forensic media. BlackLight is capable of analyzing data from Mac OS X computers, iOS devices (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch) and Windows computers. It is compatible with all leading logical and physical forensic image formats.

    Thanks much, another necessary expose.

    • Tarzie says:

      Thanks for the heads up on the links. I always manage to do that and thankfully there is usually just one person that brings it to my attention.

      Yeah, BlackLight does all kinds of things. I deliberately stayed focused on phones. Digital forensics is a big deal. Cell phone data is just one area. Shocking how much business there is around this stuff and that Snowden and co have said almost nothing about it.

    • robertmstahl says:

      A digression, I know, but there is a completely other use of the term BlackLight, as in Blacklight Power, Inc. and the true-to-form genius of the person Randell L. Mills. One should be aware, now, particularly this year and the next for paradigm shifting developments in the cultural landscape, ongoing notwithstanding the comprehensive text behind all of it, The Grand Unified Theory of Classical Physics. Not too surprizingly, it is the flawless text (free, btw) about the story of our Universe and 100% consistent with physical phenomenon that go on to frame the sphere, or spheres of our existence. It is not to say that the Earth science, biology and the sort, isn’t part of such expanding and shifting horizons, but, that there ARE other contributors to, truly, tectonic-sized events.

      The name-shifting is too much part of the strategy of this casino madness, not that it is even intended here.

  4. JCY says:

    This sounds precisely right to me.

  5. Jeffrey says:

    Mo’ hot fire– totally on point.

  6. USAMNESIA says:

    And as usual…enough of the bewildered herd will be so utterly impressed by one more asset of the great empire. It will allow us to be “secure” that our paranoia and fear are not misplaced. How utterly myopic a culture. But then again, most of the public supports drones.

  7. jason says:

    so much good stuff here. the potential for really upping the drones from spying to shooting…well, shit they just don’t, as far as we know, do that in the US. yet. it’ll start on the Southern Border.

    UPS, Amazon, etc. are already talking about (doing?) customer deliveries via drone technology. maybe they can deliver the latest iphone to one neighborhood & a water shut off notice in another place & a hellfire misfire, a couple of blocks over. say, in detroit.

    i wish i was being sarcastic.

    • diane says:

      I do not understand, nor believe (sans horridly subtle coercion and utter lies) how any human being/mammal could support drones.

      Hopefully slingshots (with no digital tracing), are not a lost ability. Let alone that one on one swat down when one has had about enough .

      • jason says:

        we aren’t there yet. but Detroit Power & Energy reportedly uses surveillance drones to spy on electricity “squatters” & Detroit is shutting off water to thousands of households (not just individuals) for past due water bills (but not the Detroit Red Wings, of course). how far a step is it to armed drones doing what i suggested? not very.

      • Tarzie says:

        It’s like science fiction.

      • jason says:

        set in Detroit of course.

  8. Abonilox says:

    I am indebted to you. The points made here have changed my perspective quite radically in the past couple of years. It takes a special kind of insight to recognize the many insidious ways that criticism of the state is appropriated, co-opted, fabricated and ultimately utilized to the benefit of the state itself.

    • Tarzie says:

      I try. It’s always nice to know I’ve at least made someone think.

      Thanks for sticking around and for your kind words. Tell your friends!

      • Abonilox says:

        Since you mention telling my friends I want to relate something peculiar. I have “shared” your posts on FB & have been baffled that they don’t seem to show up in the regular timeline or whatever the fuck they call it. Now I’m not a big FB person. I don’t really have “friends” there. It’s mostly a way for me to follow the art scene. But I did have a moment of–what should I call it?–paranoia maybe. Anyway it’s surely nothing but it seemed odd because I’ve seen some really crazy shit posted on FB but the link to your post seemed to never show up. Oh well. I’ll try again. Most of these people are straight ticket dems. A few right wingers too. But considering their chosen lifestyle it is strange that there’s not a real radical in the bunch. Plenty of crazies.

      • Tarzie says:

        I don’t think it’s paranoid to think anything is possible.

        My experience on Twitter suggests there’s a kill it before it grows MO. No gnat is too small. Color outside the lines and you’re fucked. That’s why everyone is so boring and repetitive.

  9. RUKidding says:

    “The CIA is another former employer that Snowden never blows whistles on, which seems particularly odd now in light of the CIA’s critical role in developing the technology that makes mass phone surveillance by plane possible, and its subsidies to companies that produce the software that makes sense of the data gathered in this way.”

    Yeah, ole Ed has duly informed the rubes why he won’t rat out the CIA. File under FWIW (ie, not much), but some speculate that Ed’s whole schtick with the NSA is some sort of power fight between the CIA and the NSA. But who knows, and at this point, other than idle speculation, who cares?

    It is of interest that Snowden’s main thing is to pound almost solely on the NSA. As most of us who’ve been watching the Alphabets for years, it’s fruitless to focus only one agency, as you have so ably demonstrated with great links here. Thanks, Tarzie.

    • Tarzie says:

      but who knows, and at this point, other than idle speculation, who cares?

      Yeah, I feel pretty much the same way. It’s functionally a limited hangout regardless of what Snowden’s intentions are.

      • RUKidding says:

        Oh yeah, one other thought. Speaking of schizophrenia…. OTOH, we had some mucky-mucks last week yet again calling for Snowden’s head on a pike (too lazy to look it up but someone was whining about that. Maybe one of those who are allegedly “running for Republican nomination” ?). Yet, OTOH, the little I tolerated listening to on NPR this weekend had their talking heads “crediting” Snowden – as the “hero” of the day – for getting this “ground breaking” legislation passed at all… and allegedly Snowden was used as some sort of exemplar during the bill’s process through Congress, yadda yadda. So which is it? Eddie with his head on a pike? Or Master Snowden who “saved” us all from ourselves. Nutty.

      • Tarzie says:

        Even in terms of keeping the proles in line? Serious question. Whole thing looks like a lot of overkill (cough cough) and leads to ??? I don’t know.

        The head on a stick people are just playing up their reactionary brand, although there are some like Feinstein who definitely seems to have a bias for the NSA and a strong dislike for the CIA. Probably has something to do with her and her husband’s war profiteering. These people helpfully make Snowden and his cult look like rebels, even thought elite opinion has run very strongly in Snowden’s favor from the beginning. I think leniency is in his future and the stage is being set for it with ridiculous spectacles like this Freedom Act farce.

  10. RUKidding says:

    I have mostly avoided the commentary – from whatever sources – about the whatever whatever Act that was passed or what was allegedly “sunsetted” from the nefariously named Patriot Act. Thanks for you usual trenchant observations and good links. Almost everything else is bogus.

    Well I mean, really, who can possibly believe that govt agencies of all sorts aren’t already – and will continue to do so at an ever increasing rate – spying on us all of the time.

    So-called “liberal” Hollywood has played its part by mass-producing a ton of shows of varying ilks showing how super-great all this spying is… all in the name of catching the really, truly “bad” guys. So the rubes are desensitized into believing it’s all for our own good, and anyway, if you don’t do anything wrong, why nothing to worry about! And so on.

    So allegedly now the NSA has outsourced it’s spying to the private sector. Why how very NeoLiberal or something. As if the NSA can’t get it’s grubby mitts on whatever it wants, and frankly, as if it’s not going to continue doing what it’s doing anyway. Who’s really truly going to stop these f*ckers? The ACLU? Pull the other one.

    Frankly the whole Spook/Spy/Surveillance Industry – as others have observed – has turned into this ginormous multi-trillion dollar “business,” which appears to be hydra-headed and self-perpetuating.

    I get the threats to the brow-beaten, downtrodden sheep, but really how much of this crap is truly needed? Even in terms of keeping the proles in line? Serious question. Whole thing looks like a lot of overkill (cough cough) and leads to ??? I don’t know.

    Meanwhile on another page in the NYT there was an editorial about what a piss-poor crappy job the TSA has done at allegedly “keeping us safe from terrorisssss!!11!!” on airplanes. No surprises there, of course. TSA is some giant boondoggle, and it’s made a few top dogs richer. I guess it gives some proles a job, which is the only benefit I can see. Supposedly keeping proles “safe” was never ever ever the goal of the TSA. The goal was to extract rent from the proles to enrich the .01%. Same thing with the Alphabets, in most ways.


    Just some random thoughts. Good post, Tarzie. Keep ’em coming.

    • Tarzie says:

      Even in terms of keeping the proles in line? Serious question. Whole thing looks like a lot of overkill (cough cough) and leads to ??? I don’t know.

      I think there’s two reasons for that: one is its to a certain extent just a big con for transferring money from the spied-upon to the spies. Tim Shorrock showed recently how incestuous the government and private sides of this racket are. Someone like Hayden can put together strategies and objectives while he’s inside and then contract to assist when he leaves. But I think the Intelligence Community is anticipating increasing amounts of civil unrest. So while they’re oversupplied now with weapons to use against the masses, they could be slightly less oversupplied for whatever comes up in the future. The spy planes over Baltimore foreshadow what’s to come.

    • jason says:

      the telecoms should charge rents to the gov’t to access “media content.” the gov’t would then charge it back to the media consumer; it would appear as an “Access Fee” on your cable/phone bill in which you pay the fee for the gov’t to be able to freely access your telecom-stored date.

  11. M. Garcia says:

    Let’s be cynical about the spectacle, shall we? While I do like that ES person, thanks for a fresh perspective of the story I have known for only a couple of years–I was waiting to hear something from the other side, and behold! There comes such an article. I will not be gloating about him too much, because the idolization has come too far…and needless to say, there will still be watchers amidst the spectacle going on about.

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