The Texas National Guard last year spent more than $373,000 to install controversial cellphone eavesdropping devices in secretive surveillance aircraft.
Maryland-based Digital Receiver Technology Inc., or DRT, installed two of its DRT 1301C “portable receiver systems” in National Guard aircraft in partnership with the Drug Enforcement Administration, according to a contract between the Texas National Guard and the company. The contract states that the dirt boxes, as they’re often called after the company’s acronym, are for “investigative case analytical support” in counternarcotics operations and were purchased using state drug-asset forfeiture money.
Dirt boxes mimic cellphone towers by tricking every smartphone within a geographic area of up to one-third of a mile to connect with the technology, usually without cellphone users or telecom companies ever knowing about it. Also known as cell-site simulators, the devices can be used from land or air and are capable of intercepting the user’s location, phone numbers dialed, text messages and photos as well as recording or listening to phone calls.
Privacy and civil liberties advocates have called the use of dirt boxes a “digital dragnet,” because it’s nearly impossible for the government to avoid intercepting personal information from innocent cellphone users when pursuing investigative targets.
According to the contract documents obtained by the Observer, the eavesdropping devices were installed in two RC-26 surveillance planes used for counternarcotics operations. At one time, the RC-26s reportedly operated under a front company called Air Cerberus, but have since converted to military registrations, which generally mask their flight routes and unique tail numbers.