Airborne technology that is supposed to be used to locate the cellphones of criminals is also collecting information from the phones of thousands of ordinary Americans, according to a Wednesday night report in the Wall Street Journal.
The paper said the program is run out of the U.S. Marshals Service, which has installed surveillance technology on several Cessna aircraft that it can use to cover almost the entire U.S. population.
According to the Journal, devices known as "dirtboxes" try to locate cellphones "linked to individuals under investigation by the government, including fugitives and drug dealers." But while the devices are supposed to quickly determine which phones are being sought and ignore the phones of people who aren't targeted, they often still collect some information, and can interrupt innocent people who are using their phone.
The report also said the program allows officials to get the information on their own, without asking for help from the phone companies. Verizon said it wasn't aware of the program, and AT&T and Sprint didn't comment.
"[T]he equipment referenced in the article is not Verizon's and is not part of our network," a Verizon representative told the Journal.
The U.S. Marshals Service uses the program to track fugitives. But while there could be concerns about the collection of data from other people, a Department of Justice official declined to comment on the existence of the program.
The Wall Street Journal said the program became functional in 2007.