FBI sold phones to organized crime and read 27 million “encrypted” messages

Illustration of a Trojan horse in an electronic environment.

Enlarge / A digital Trojan horse. (credit: Getty Images | posteriori)

The Federal Bureau of Investigation created a company that sold encrypted devices to hundreds of organized crime syndicates, resulting in 800 arrests in 16 countries, law-enforcement authorities announced today. The FBI and agencies in other countries intercepted 27 million messages over 18 months before making the arrests in recent days, and more arrests are planned.

The FBI teamed up with Australian Federal Police to target drug trafficking and money laundering. They “strategically developed and covertly operated an encrypted device company, called ANOM, which grew to service more than 12,000 encrypted devices to over 300 criminal syndicates operating in more than 100 countries, including Italian organized crime, outlaw motorcycle gangs, and international drug trafficking organizations,” Europol said today.

Distribution of the devices began in October 2018. The cellphones sold by the FBI-run company were “procured on the black market” and “performed a single function hidden behind a calculator app: sending encrypted messages and photos,” The New York Times wrote today. The cellphones were “stripped of all normal functions,” with the faux calculator being the only working app. Once users entered a code, they could use the app to send messages that they thought were protected by end-to-end encryption.

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