Dirtbox (cell phone)

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A dirtbox (or DRT box) is a cell site simulator, or a phone device mimicking a cell phone tower. The device is designed to create a signal strong enough within a short range that it forces dormant mobile phones to automatically switch over to it. It is used by the United States Marshals Service, mounted on aircraft all over the U.S., to detect and locate cell phones and thus collect information, and can be used to jam phones. The name stems from the company that originally developed it, Digital Receiver Technology, Inc., abbreviated DRT, owned by the Boeing company. Boeing describes the device as a hybrid of "jamming, managed access and detection".[1]:1 A similar device with a more limited range that has been widely used by United States federal entities, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), is the controversial StingRay phone tracker.


It is not known when Digital Receiver Technology, Inc. (DRT) first manufactured the dirtbox. DRT does not publicly advertise the dirtbox, stating, "Due to the sensitive nature of our work, we are unable to publicly advertise many of our products" on its Web site.[2] The Wall Street Journal wrote that the program by the U.S. Marshals Service "fully matured by 2007".[3] Boeing bought DRT in 2008.[4]

Similar devices from the Harris Corporation, like the Stingray phone tracker, have been sold around the same time. Since 2008, their airborne mounting kit for cell phone surveillance has been said to cost $9,000.[5]

On June 11, 2010, the Boeing Company had asked the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to advise the United States Congress that the "... Communications Act of 1934 be modified to allow prison officials and state and local law enforcement to use appropriate cell phone management".[1] It suggested that special weapons and tactics (SWAT) teams and other paramilitary tactical units could control wireless communications in a building during a raid.[1]:5

The Chicago Police Department bought dirt boxes to eavesdrop on demonstrators during the 2012 NATO summit and used them in 2014 Black Lives Matter demonstrations, and in 2015 it became known that the Los Angeles Police Department had purchased them too.[4]


The device was described as being 2-square-foot (0.19 m2) in size in the first mass media publication that shed light on it.[3]

It acts as a fake cell phone tower,[4] and utilizes IMSI-catcher technology, which stands for "international mobile subscriber identity". Phone networks use this system to identify an individual subscriber.[3] The device emits a pilot signal made to appear stronger than that from the service provider cell tower, which forces all phones within its range to broadcast their IMSI number and electronic serial number (ESN). Encryption does not prevent this process.[3] Furthermore, the devices can retrieve the encryption session keys for a cellphone in less than a second with success rates of 50 to 75% (in real world conditions)".[4]

By mounting the device on a plane, it can locate a phone within 10 feet,[3] while another source claims that by triangulating flights, a dirtbox can identify a phone accurately up to two feet.[6]

The dirtbox is a hybrid of detection, managed access and jamming technologies: According to "people with knowledge of the program", in The Wall Street Journal article, the device can determine which phones belong to suspects and which belong to non-suspects,[3] and that "cell phones not of interest, such as those belonging to prison personnel or commercial users in the area, are returned to their local network."[1]:4 The dirtbox can also selectively jam for brief intervals, that is, interrupt or disable calls on certain phones, preventing contraband use in prison.[1]:4 It can also retrieve data from a phone. The technology is "unobtrusive to legitimate wireless communications", as described by Boeing,[1]:4 and bypasses phone companies in its operations.

Agency use[edit]

Law enforcement[edit]

As of November 2014, the U.S. Marshals Service Technical Operations Group has been using the device fixed on manned airplanes to track fugitives, but it can deploy it on "targets requested by other parts of the Justice Program".[3] It operates from at least five U.S. airports "covering most of the U.S. population". It is unclear whether the U.S. Marshals Service is requesting court orders.[3]

Specifically, the Marshals Service has used dirtboxes in the Mexican Drug War for tracking fugitives in coordination with Mexico's Naval Infantry Force and flights in Guatemala.[7]

DRT boxes are used by the United States Special Operations Command, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI and U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The U.S. Navy bought dirtboxes to mount on drones at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, its research and development facility in Southern California according to procurement documents. The Pentagon Washington Headquarters Services bought them in 2011.[4]

Signal intelligence[edit]

Based on references to DRTBox in NSA's Boundless informant screenshots[8] leaked by Edward Snowden, dirtbox is probably used by the NSA.[9] Le Monde wrote in 2013, that "thanks to DRTBOX, 62.5 million phone data were collected in France".[10] The United States Naval Special Warfare Development Group Group One bought a Digital Receiver Technology 1301B System on April 2, 2007 costing over $25,000 per the United States government procurement web site.[11]

U.S. regulation[edit]

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has known of dirtbox since at least 2010.[1] In 2014, the United States Department of Justice refused to confirm or deny that the program exists, but an official said "it would be 'utterly false' to conflate the law-enforcement program with the collection of bulk telephone records by the National Security Agency".[12] The Federal Communications Commission, responsible for licensing and regulating cell-service providers, was not aware of this activity prior to The Wall Street Journal's exposé.[12]

In January 2015 the US Senate Judiciary Committee asked the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security which law enforcement agencies use the DRTbox, and the legal process/what policies existed to protect the privacy interests of those whose information is collected.[13]


Dirtbox use has been criticized as violating the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.[14] including by U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Florida.[4]

Brian Owsley, a law professor at Indiana Institute of Technology and former United States magistrate said "I think the government would need to obtain a search warrant based on probable cause consistent with the Fourth Amendment".[15]

The Guardian quoted Michael German at New York University Law School, a former FBI agent, as saying: "The overriding problem is the excessive secrecy that hides the government’s ever-expanding surveillance programs from public accountability."[16]

Senator Edward Markey (Democrat, Massachusetts) and former Senator Al Franken (Democrat, Minnesota) have warned that Americans' privacy rights must be assured.[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g The Boeing Company (11 June 2010). "Technical Approaches to Preventing Contraband Cell Phone Use in Prisons;Docket No. 100504212-0212-01". National Telecommunications and Information Administration. p. 7. Retrieved 16 November 2014. [permanent dead link]
  2. ^ "DRT Products". Digital Receiver Technology, Inc. n.d. Retrieved 16 November 2014. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Devlin Barrett (13 November 2014). "Americans' Cellphones Targeted in Secret U.S. Spy Program". The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company. Retrieved 14 November 2014. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f Ali Winston (August 7, 2015) Chicago and Los Angeles have used ‘dirt box’ surveillance for a decade Center of Investigative Reporting, retrieved 26 April 2016
  5. ^ Kim Zetter (14 November 2014). "The Feds Are Now Using 'Stingrays' in Planes to Spy on Our Phone Calls". Wired. Condé Nast. Retrieved 16 November 2014. 
  6. ^ Iain Thomson (14 November 2014). "US Marshals commit DIRTBOX INTRUSION on Americans, says report". The Register. Situation Publishing. Retrieved 16 November 2014. 
  7. ^ Devlin Barrett (21 November 2014). "U.S. Marshals Service Personnel Dressed as Mexican Marines Pursue Cartel Bosses". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 21 November 2014. 
  8. ^ P/K (27 November 2013). "DRTBOX and the DRT surveillance systems". Top Level Telecommunications. electrospaces.net. Retrieved 16 November 2014. 
  9. ^ Stephanie K. Pell; Christopher Soghoian (May 15, 2014). "Your Secret Stingray's No Secret Anymore: The Vanishing Government Monopoly Over Cell Phone Surveillance and Its Impact on National Security and Consumer Privacy". Social Science Electronic Publishing, Inc. p. 67. SSRN 2437678Freely accessible. 
  10. ^ Jacques Follorou, Glenn Greenwald (21 October 2013). "France in the NSA's crosshair : phone networks under surveillance". Le Monde. Retrieved 27 May 2016. 
  11. ^ FedBizOpps (2 April 2007). "59 -- Portable Receiving System". FedBizOpps.gov. Retrieved 17 November 2014. 
  12. ^ a b c Devlin Barrett and Gautham Nagesh (14 November 2014). "U.S. Defends Marshals in Wake of Secret Cellphone Spying Report". The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones Co. Retrieved 16 November 2014. 
  13. ^ Staff (January 02, 2015) "Senate wants more answers from feds about fake cell towers, other devices that collect smartphone data" Fox News, retrieved 26 April 2016
  14. ^ Mark Weinstein (16 November 2014). "U.S. Marshals and Their "Dirtbox" Declare the 4th Amendment Dead". The Huffington Post. Retrieved 16 November 2014. 
  15. ^ Megan Geuss (13 November 2014). "Feds gather phone data from the sky with aircraft mimicking cell towers". Ars Technica. Condé Nast. Retrieved 16 November 2014. 
  16. ^ Spencer Ackerman; Dominic Rushe; Paul Lewis (14 November 2014). "US government planes mimic cellphone towers to collect user data – report". The Guardian. Retrieved 16 November 2014. 

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