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How The LAPD Has Been Hacking Our Phones For Years

Time to put on your tinfoil hats! (Photo by Kostenko Maxim via Shutterstock)
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The LAPD has had access to a device called a "dirtbox" for the past several years. This equipment allows them to intercept calls and text messages from numerous cellphones at once.

A "dirtbox" gets its name from the acronym of the company that makes them: Digital Receiver Technology, Inc., which is owned by The Boeing Co. These devices, which used by the military and the Justice Department, are also being used by police. Police departments in both Chicago and L.A. bought the equipment in 2005, according to an investigation by Reveal News. Los Angeles spent $260,000 on the equipment, using money from a homeland security grant to pay for the actual devices and a two-week training program on how to use it. Their reasoning was the same as it always is: to fight terrorism. Chicago, on the other hand, used funds from the controversial practice of asset forfeiture.

A dirtbox is something called a cell site simulator, and it works by mimicking a cell phone tower. Cell phones within range start using the dirtbox, and any information—voice calls, who you've called, texts, data you've sent—is intercepted and decrypted as it passes through. A dirtbox is capable of drawing from 200 cellphones at a time, and it can also jam signals. The Justice Department uses these devices, typically putting them on planes that U.S. Marshals fly around. In theory, if you're not a suspect, your phone information would be ignored.

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Dirtboxes are similar to the Harris Corporation's StingRays, which the LAPD also employs, but dirtboxes are more powerful. Activist Freddy Martinez said a dirtbox is like a StingRay "on steroids."

The LAPD chose not to tell reveal how they use the devices, or to provide documents showing when they bought them—and they've been pretty secretive about their surveillance use for a while now. However, records obtained by the First Amendment Coalition indicate that the equipment is predominantly used by the LAPD's Major Crimes Division and that the department used this kind of technology 21 times in 2012 between June and September. These included murder, attempted murder and kidnapping cases.

Peter Bibring, a senior staff attorney the ACLU of Southern California and director of police practices for the ACLU of California, told Reveal that it's "extremely troubling that LAPD acquired the [NSA's] tool of choice for monitoring foreign cellphone communications and is using it for local investigations in Los Angeles."

The ACLU filed lawsuits earlier this year against Anaheim and Sacramento counties over the use of StingRays.

Mark Weinstein, founder of MeWe, declared the fourth amendment "dead" in a blog post about dirt boxes late last year.