Many IMSI. So catching. Much aeroplane. Such Dirtbox. OK, so the US Department of Justice, or more directly, the FBI is flying around in light aircraft carrying an IMSI catcher in order to spy on the cellular traffic of evildoers and, hey, anybody else in the 37km max diameter of a GSM cell centred on where the aircraft happens to be right now. Thanks to Declan McCullagh we know they have been since at least 2009 because it’s in the manufacturer’s price list.
— Declan McCullagh (@declanm) November 13, 2014
But, hey, Dirtbox. I have to say I find the story difficult to follow just with the comic contrast of all these terribly serious Americans with lists of questions to ask in the Senate, like so, and the fact every second word is “dirtbox”, and they’re all innocent about it.
“Dirtbox” is a British slang term equivalent to arsehole/asshole dating from the 1990s, now archaic, probably best immortalised in a Viz comic strip featuring Roger Mellie, the Man on the Telly, and celebrity Tony Slattery. The genius of Google Images wasn’t equal to finding it, at least not in the 30 or so seconds I was willing to invest. Another reference is Robbie Williams’ appropriately shitty album Rudebox. So you can see how this would make me laugh.
Right. Probed by the dirtbox equipment. But we’re not just here for cheap laughs, are we. Here’s a blog post of mine from 2012. It is not exactly secret that the British secret services have the use of a small group of Islander light aircraft based at RAF Northolt in London that do precisely this. I remember Internet references to this from people who ought to know as far back as 2004-5.
Rlchard Aldrich’s unofficial history of GCHQ, though, notes that they were involved in an arrest in 2007 and goes on to point out that they have existed since 1999 at the latest. The reference is pages 537 and 538 of the 2010 HarperCollins paperback edition. Aldrich suggests that the technology dates to the campaign against Colombian drug baron Pablo Escobar in the early 1990s. He also describes it as pulling in microwave backhaul links.
Aldrich’s version of the story is all about backhaul, but in my 2012 post I disbelieved that we had that much of it still on the air rather than on fibre. I’ve since learned that 3UK has fibre, increasingly, dark fibre it controls itself, to 90-odd per cent of its base stations, but Vodafone is in the 30s and is therefore heavily reliant on microwave. You would expect an early 90s emerging market network to be about 100% microwave, so perhaps Aldrich’s source was in fact talking about Colombia. But this is beside the point, as IMSI catchers work on the access side not the backhaul.
I would guess that the UK context would be Northern Ireland, which reminds me that although Aldrich describes the aircraft as operated by the RAF, I’ve read elsewhere that they have Army Air Corps tail numbers.
So. Airborne IMSI catchers have been operated by the UK since 1999 at least, possibly earlier, and they are known in the US by a British slang term that dates them to a few years earlier than that.