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Texas National Guard deployed cellphone spying devices on surveillance planes

Nov 13, 20174 mins
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The Texas National Guard spent $373,000 for "stingray" devices deployed on surveillance planes, which are capable of intercepting calls and capturing text messages.

Well, this is disturbing.

The Texas National Guard spent over $373,000 for two cellphone spying devices that are capable of intercepting calls and hoovering up content such as text messages and photos. Then they installed the devices on two surveillance planes, but they won’t say how the cell-site simulators are being used or if they get a warrant before using them.

The Texas Observer managed to obtain contract documents showing that Maryland-based Digital Receiver Technology Inc. (DRT) installed two DRT 1301C cellphone surveillance boxes in two Texas National Guard RC-26 surveillance planes last year. Those aircraft reportedly used to operate under the front company Air Cerberus, but they now have military registrations to “mask their flight routes and unique tail numbers.”

The contract between the National Guard and DRT specified that the deal was done “in partnership with the Drug Enforcement Administration.” The two “dirt” boxes were purchased with state drug-asset forfeiture money and are for “investigative case analytical support” in counternarcotic operations.

How cell-site simulators work, what they hear

Cell-site simulators mimic cellphone towers and trick phones within one-third of a mile into connecting to the surveillance devices. They can be used to eavesdrop on calls, intercept phone numbers dialed and obtain users’ locations. But these are not Stingrays by Harris Corp.

In fact, according to attorney Scott McCollough, who serves on the board of the Austin chapter of EFF, “These DRT boxes are far more capable than the old Stingrays. The old-style Stingrays were not able to capture content. Guess what? The DRT box is. … These newer ones get everything.”

In a previously leaked surveillance catalogue, the EFF’s Jennifer Lynch explained that DRT 1301C “devices can locate up to 10,000 targets and can process multiple analog and digital wireless devices all at the same time. They’re even capable of intercepting and recording digital voice data. The best thing about the devices is the fact that no one may ever know you’ve used one.”

Although the Texas National Guard has participated in Texas-Mexico border security and counternarcotic missions for 28 years, it claimed the dirt boxes were not being used for that.

“In regard to your questions, the items you are asking about are not associated with the Operation Secure Texas mission,” the National Guard told the Texas Observer.

What is the Texas National Guard using the spying devices for?

If the dirt boxes aren’t being used at the border, then where are they being used? Since the National Guard is military and not law enforcement, the Texas Observer wants to know “under what legal authorities the State Guard would be operating to conduct electronic eavesdropping”? The Texas National Guard refused to explain if it obtains a probable cause warrant before using the spy tech or even where the dirt boxes are being used.

When former Navy intelligence analyst and Texas Rep. César Blanco was asked about the dirt boxes, he said he didn’t know anything about the purchases. And Blanco is vice chairman of the committee that oversees the Texas National Guard.

“There are really big privacy and constitutional due-process concerns with the use of this technology,” Blanco told the Texas Observer. “If it’s useful to authorities, then I completely understand that. … [But] if the Texas National Guard want to get into the business of surveillance and utilizing intelligence and classifying intelligence, there’s got to be an oversight body that responds to the citizens of Texas.”

EFF staff attorney Stephanie Lacambra added, “Without a clear public policy posted on how they’re going to be allowed to use these kinds of devices, there’s nothing to stop them from using a cell-site simulator in a suburb of Dallas any more than at the border. And people should be legitimately concerned about that.”

ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.