Digital Receiver Technology, Inc. manufactures a security surveillance device called DRT 1301C. The devices are known in law enforcement and military circles as “dirt boxes.” It is referred to by that name because the police and military use it to gather “dirt” on private lives of both criminal and law-abiding citizens. Dirt boxes have joined the ranks of surveillance cameras, drones, GPS tracking devices, and a slew of other information-gathering technologies that allow the government to monitor the activity of its citizenry.
Dirt boxes have become the latest surveillance fad because the device can target 10,000 locations while simultaneously processing multiple analog and digital devices, including intercepting digital voice data. The thing that brings law enforcement to ecstasy is that the targets of dirt boxes never know they are under surveillance. This ten and one-half pound device costs roughly $100,000 from its Maryland-based manufacturer.
Texas National Guard Deploys Secretive Surveillance
On November 6, 2017, the Texas Observer reported that the Texas National Guard spent more $373,000 last year to install dirt boxes in its “secretive surveillance [RC-26] aircraft” Supposedly purchased with drug forfeiture assets, these surveillance devices were deployed by this quasi-military outfit in “partnership” with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to provide what the Guard calls “investigative case analytical support” in counter- narcotics investigations being conducted by the DEA.
In other words, Rambo meets Dirty Harry—both of whom have very little understanding about the constitutional concept of “right to privacy.”
Security vs. Privacy
And the right to privacy is a core issue surrounding the use of dirt boxes because, as the Observer pointed out, “it’s nearly impossible for the government to avoid intercepting personal information from innocent cellphone users when pursuing investigative targets.”
Here’s how this individual privacy invading device works, according to the Observer:
“Dirt boxes mimic cellphone towers by tricking every smartphone within a geographic area of up to one-third of a mile to connect with the technology, usually without cellphone users or telecom companies every knowing about it. Also known as cell-site simulators, the devices can be used from land or air and are capable of intercepting the user’s location, phone numbers dialed, text messages and photos as well as recording or listening to phone calls.”
Civil liberties and privacy advocates refer to dirt boxes as a “digital dragnet” that ensnares innocent, law-abiding conversations and information in pursuit of illegal conversations and “dirt” on narcotics traffickers.
The Texas ACLU reported two years ago that Lincoln, Nebraska Police Chief Jim Peschong said that police surveillance cameras installed in the city’s downtown area were not “effective” in stemming crime. The Texas ACLU pointed out that the Lincoln “police department did something that too few authorities do, which is to actually monitor and audit the performance of a surveillance technology. Every agency adopting a new surveillance technology (whether it be a camera, drone, cellphone tracking device, or anything else) should build in a process to evaluate its effectiveness. This will ensure that the agency and the public alike can understand whether they’re getting reasonable returns on both their investment and their privacy sacrifice. People might disagree over how much power we need to give to law enforcement, so they can try to stop crime, but if the surveillance that they’re going isn’t even effective, then there’s no need for debate.”
We embrace the notion that there should be a built-in auditing process to monitor a surveillance program’s effectiveness, as well as its compliance with constitutional and statutory rules—something we doubt that the Texas National Guard has done with its “dirt box” surveillance program.
Programs Need Public Input and Accountability
But beyond auditing accountability, there should be input from innocent, law-abiding citizens before the government is permitted snoop around in the private lives of its citizenry. The police, as well as the military inasmuch as they’ve undertaken law enforcement tasks, have two fundamental obligations to society: protect and serve its law-abiding citizenry. Both duties can be achieved without these government crime fighters prowling around, eavesdropping on the private lives of law-abiding citizens.
Let Texans vote, or at least have input, on whether they want their law enforcement and Texas National Guard to deploy surveillance technology that invades their deepest most privacy moments in pursuit narco-traffickers.
One of our Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin, once said: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
Law-and-order adherents, those who would forsake liberty for safety, say that Father Ben’s observation is not applicable today because safety is a precious commodity. But these are generally the same people who say the 1787 Second Amendment’s right to keep and bear a single-shot musket applies the right to keep and bear an AR-15 today.
DOJ Guidelines Require Probable Cause
The Observer pointed out that in 2015 “the [U.S.] Justice Department issued guidelines for federal law enforcement agencies requiring that a probable cause warrant be obtained from a judge before using [dirt box] technology.”
Texas National Guard?
The Guard refused to explain to the Observer “what steps, if any, it takes to secure a warrant prior to deploying the [dirt box] devices, or where the dirt boxes are being used.”
The Texas Department of Public Safety utilizes the cellphone tracking devices known as Stingrays. Some privacy rights advocates have described dirt boxes as “Stingrays on steroids.”
We live in a time when the chance of being caught on a surveillance camera in any commercial area is virtually 100 percent. In 2013, shortly after the Boston Marathon bombing, roughly 70 percent of Americans believed there should be more surveillance cameras in public areas.
Two years later the Pew Research Center reported that 93 percent of Americans feel they should control who obtains information about them with 74 percent of those saying this is very important to them. 88 percent of these Americans do not like to be watched or have their conversations monitored without their permission.
Law enforcement does not care about the pubic likes or dislikes when it comes to their authority to fight crime. They routinely feel they have a right to secretly deploy any surveillance technology they choose to track and prevent criminal activity, regardless of the public’s privacy concerns.
Criminal Defense Lawyers Beware
As defense attorneys, it is our solemn duty to fight and suppress evidence secured through surveillance technologies like dirt boxes and Stingrays—not just because these technologies trample the Fourth Amendment, but also because they give the government too much power to invade the personal, private lives of law-abiding citizens.
Texans are at the unfortunate juncture today where there is no difference between their police and their national guard. It’s called a “police state.”