Nov 14, 2014 · 1 minute

You might soon start associating the sound of a plane flying overhead with government surveillance.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the Justice Department is using devices attached to planes to gather location information, interrupt phone calls, and learn the unique identifier associated with "tens of thousands" of cellphones every time the planes make their way across the country.

The devices force passing cellphones to connect to them by pretending to be a strong cell tower. Once they've accomplished that, they're able to gather information as they pass overhead, with the tens of thousands of Americans whose privacy was just compromised being none the wiser. (Some phones can warn that devices like these are nearby, but they're not perfect nor common.)

And these aren't general surveillance devices, either. They're ultra-sensitive tools that are said to be able to learn someone's location within three meters, allowing the Justice Department to discover that someone is in a specific room in a building, for instance. Combine that with the unique identifiers gathered with this location information and you have a privacy nightmare.

There are several things we don't yet know about this program: how often the planes make the flight around the United States; whether or not the Justice Department has used the device's ability to intercept communications; and how the department knows what information to keep and what should be deleted after it gathers so much data from people throughout the country.

The Journal explains the types of people targeted by this surveillance network in its report:

Similar devices are used by U.S. military and intelligence officials operating in other countries, including in war zones, where they are sometimes used to locate terrorist suspects, according to people familiar with the work. In the U.S., these people said, the technology has been effective in catching suspected drug dealers and killers. They wouldn’t say which suspects were caught through this method.
That's right. The Justice Department has created a program that allows it to know the precise location of tens of thousands of Americans, jam their cellphone signals, or steal their messages because it wanted to get better at catching "suspected drug dealers." I mean, at least the NSA had the decency of using terrorists in its attempt to justify its surveillance programs.