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U.S. Marshals Use Cellphone Tracking Drone to Collect Data, Locate Criminal Suspects

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the U.S. Marshals Service has been utilizing new technology in an effort to find criminal suspects. The technology being used is more sophisticated than the StingRay devices that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been using, which collects serial numbers of cellphones so as to locate the cellphone. The technology employed by the U.S. Marshals is mounted on airplanes and collects data of cellphones that are below. The devices, known as “dirtboxes,” are attached to airplanes and act as cellphone towers; the cell phones below connect to the “dirtboxes” thinking they are cellphone towers, and the “dirtboxes” are able to receive a significant amount of data, beyond just general location of the cellphones.

Purpose of the “Dirtboxes”

The purpose of the dirtboxes is to help locate and apprehend criminal suspects and federal fugitives that are the targets of the U.S. Marshals. Once connected, the dirtboxes may locate the phone with an accuracy of three meters. The boxes, however, do more than act like a GPS scanner and can actually lift information such as text messages, photos, and other types of data from the phone. In addition, the dirtboxes not only sweep the phones of criminals, but also pick up the data of innocent bystanders; technically, the technology is supposed to ignore the data of innocent people but there is little information about the extent that this actually occurs. The dirtboxes, over a single flight, can pick up data from over tens of thousands of phones that have been caught within range.

Privacy Law Issues with the “Dirtboxes”

The news that the U.S. Marshals have been employing this technology for some time now has led to considerable privacy law debates, especially in the criminal justice realm. In this day and age, there are significant safeguards to ensure that the government is not allowed to insert itself in the most private areas of our lives. Most GPS devices nationwide that the government may use to track individuals requires the sanction of a warrant before these devices may be attached. In Florida, local and state agencies require a search warrant before GPS devices may be attached to a suspect’s car.

Warrant Requirement Generally

A warrant generally requires that for the government to have any type of intrusion into the personal effects and personal homes of citizens, it needs to show that it has probable cause and that the effects to be searched and the intrusion itself is limited to the details and particularities assigned within the warrant. The warrant must be signed by a judge or magistrate for it to go into full effect. Therefore, the use of technology that harvests data from any and all cellphones within the radius of these devices is suspect.

Florida’s Ruling on the Use of Cellphone Tower Tracking Data

In Florida, in June 2014, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that law enforcement officials need a search warrant from a judge before they may use cellphone tower tracking data which, like the “dirtboxes,” is able to use the cellphone information of the criminal suspects to determine their location at the time the crime was committed. With the release of the new information regarding the U.S. Marshals “dirtboxes,” the courts will most likely decide soon whether the federal government is able to use this type of technology or if search warrants will be required.

Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney in Fort Lauderdale

If you or a loved one has been the subject of an unreasonable search and seizure, it is important to speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney like Kevin J. Kulik who will be able to guide you through the legal proceedings and answer any concerns or questions that you may have. Contact the Fort Lauderdale law offices of Kevin J. Kulik today for a free and confidential consultation of your case.

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