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A Justice Department program used to gather data from U.S. cellphones apparently has a secret partner: the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

The CIA played a role in helping the U.S. Marshals Service develop technology that imitates cellphone towers, The Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday. The system, used on airplanes, allows federal agents to scoop up identifying and location information for thousands of cellphones in every sweep.

{mosads}The spy agency’s role in the so-called “dirtbox” program was previously unknown, and is considered unusual, given that the CIA is banned from most domestic spying operations.

The collaboration between the CIA and the DOJ is likely to raise concerns from civil libertarians about spy techniques being used on U.S. soil.

Development of the “dirtbox” devices began approximately 10 years ago when the CIA arranged for the Marshals Service to receive money to conduct surveillance, the Journal reported. The two groups worked together for years to develop the technology, versions of which are used overseas to track terror suspects.

The technology works by tricking cellphones into believing they are sending signals to cellphone towers when, in reality, they are pinging federal agents. In some cases, individual cellphone locations can be located to within 3 feet, and their communications can be intercepted. Encryption measures do not disrupt this process.

The program relies on specially equipped planes that fly from five U.S. cities. Sweeps gather data from most of the U.S. population, including nonsuspects, according to the Journal.


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