FBI sold smartphones to organized crime to spy on millions of “encrypted” messages

The FBI announces a punch operation against organized crime with more than 800 arrests in 16 countries. The federal agency explains that it has managed to spy on more than 27 million supposedly encrypted messages for 18 months without the knowledge of the criminals. To achieve its ends, the FBI simply sold them infected smartphones!

FBI smartphones
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FBI announces punch operation against international organized crime, in particular crime syndicates linked to drug trafficking and money laundering. The agency explains that an investigation has led to the arrest of 800 people linked to criminal organizations in 16 countries – more arrests are planned in the coming weeks. To achieve this spectacular result, the FBI resorted to very clever tactics.

It becomes very difficult to spy on exchanges between criminals, since they spend most of the time through end-to-end encrypted messaging such as Signal, or Telegram. Rather than attempting to decipher messages on criminals’ smartphones, a daunting task with current decryption means, the FBI has outright organized the distribution of infected smartphones to organized crime.

FBI and Australian police were hiding behind secure smartphone vendor ANOM

For this, the FBI has partnered with the Australian Federal Police. they have “Strategically developed and quietly managed a company specializing in encrypted smartphones, named ANOM, which has managed to sell over 12,000 encrypted devices to over 300 crime syndicates operating in over 100 countries, including Italian mafia, gangs of outlaw bikers, and international drug trafficking organizations ”, explains Europol in a press release.

Smartphones sold by the FBI had everything from the perfect smartphone for criminals. They were specially prepared to fulfill only one feature: a hidden messaging service in the Calculator app. When the user opened this app, they had to enter a code to access supposedly encrypted messaging, allowing text and photos to be sent.

Also read: FBI hacks thousands of PCs without users’ knowledge to protect them from Hafnium

This FBI tip shows that there is no need to fight against the spread of encryption on smartphones

Obviously, none of these messages were really encrypted – the encryption key was set by the FBI – and all ended up on the American agency’s servers. To avoid being unmasked while giving credibility to the approach behind these devices, the FBI began selling smartphones on Dark Web platforms in October 2018. Europol explains the success of their devices by the fact that they delivered specific functionalities, including the possibility of erasing them securely from a distance, or the use of stronger passwords.

Several offensives against competing secure smartphone suppliers helped ANOM’s growth. The arrests we are talking about today are the epilogue of over 18 months of investigation during which officers gained unprecedented access to criminal communications. Apparently, users trusted these smartphones so much that they traded freely, without masking their comments with slang or codes.

The moral of this story is pretty positive. After years of fighting encryption, agencies like the FBI are finally starting to realize that all necessary investigative purposes can be accomplished without forcing device makers to break the security of their products. or to install back doors.

Source: Ars Technica

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