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Justice Department to Reveal More About Dirtboxes

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May 4, 2015, 7:45 AM   by Eric M. Zeman

Government officials at the U.S. Department of Justice have agreed provide more information about how law enforcement uses dirtboxes to collect location data on cell phones. The government uses dirtboxes in two specific ways. First, it sweeps large areas for the phones of suspected criminals from an airplane. Though the government is typically targeting a single phone, it sweeps up the data of all phone users in range of the plane — typically tens of thousands of people. Once law enforcement has a general idea of where the suspect or suspects are located, ground-based law enforcement move in and use a similar hand-held dirtbox to home in on the suspect's exact location. Until lately, law enforcement did all this without warrants. The Wall Street Journal exposed the practice last year, raising serious questions about the method's "silent ID check" of innocent people. As such, the Justice Department said it will review how the FBI, DEA, and U.S. Marshals Service use the devices moving forward. The Justice Department is "examining its policies to ensure they reflect the Department's continuing commitment to conducting its vital missions while according appropriate respect for privacy and civil liberties." The Justice Department's review will pertain to the federal agencies that use dirtboxes, but not necessarily how local law enforcement offices use them. Dirtboxes are increasingly used by local law enforcement to circumvent the need to ask phone companies to provide the same information. Asking phone companies to provide such data generally requires a warrant.



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