In the wake of a study showing that the majority of American adults distrust the government’s monitoring of the internet and the safety of their online data, a new item of concern emerges. Reports that a program inside the U.S. Justice Department is gathering data from U.S. users’ cell phones — from both suspected criminals and non-suspected citizens — mirrors the practices of the National Security Agency’s surveillance tactics that are unsettling to so many Americans.
The technology consists of fake communications towers on airplanes that resemble real cell towers in terms of their communication with individual cell phones. The program is an initiative on the part of the U.S. Marshals Service, which operates Cessna aircraft from at least five metropolitan-area airports, according to the Wall Street Journal. The news outlet reports that the aircraft fly over the majority of the U.S. population, and are equipped with devices that mimic cell towers of large telcos which can trick cellphones into releasing registration information.
This unveiling of such a surveillance program differs from the revelations of Edward Snowden last year, as much of Snowden’s leaks revealed that widely-used tech giants and telcos worked in tandem with the government — or were made to comply with it. While the National Security Agency does gather information about millions of cell phones in order to pinpoint criminal activity (as it says), this report suggests that telcos are unaware of this data-culling. Technology companies and telecoms have attempted to assuage the fears of Americans with transparency reports, but this news undermines those initiatives.
Now, Americans will no doubt have fewer reasons to trust the supply chain of communications technology that they employ at home and work, even from so-called “encrypted” hardware and software on newer devices. Edward Snowden’s leaks set the stage for the massive distrust Americans now feel towards the government and companies like Google and Facebook, but as further reports such as these trickle through, skepticism for reliably private communications technology will only get worse.