‘We Got the Phone the FBI Secretly Sold to Criminals’
Motherboard bought an FBI “Anom” phone that the agency secretly sells to criminals to monitor their communications. Joseph Cox reports: The sleek, black phone seems perfectly normal. Unlocking the Google Pixel 4a with a PIN code reveals some common apps: Tinder, Instagram, Facebook, Netflix, and even Candy Crush. But none of those apps work, and tapping their icons doesn’t do anything. Resetting the phone and typing in another PIN opens up an entirely different section of the device, with a new background and new apps. Now in place of the old apps sit a clock, a calculator, and the device’s settings. Clicking the calculator doesn’t open a calculator — it opens a login screen.

“Enter Anom ID” and a password, the screen reads. Hidden in the calculator is a concealed messaging app called Anom, which last month we learned was an FBI honeypot. On Anom, criminals believed they could communicate securely, with the app encrypting their messages. They were wrong: an international group of law enforcement agencies including the FBI were monitoring their messages and announced hundreds of arrests last month. International authorities have held press conferences to tout the operation’s success, but have provided few details on how the phones actually functioned.

Motherboard has obtained and analyzed an Anom phone from a source who unknowingly bought one on a classified ads site. On that site, the phone was advertised as just a cheap Android device. But when the person received it, they realized it wasn’t an ordinary phone, and after being contacted by Motherboard, found that it contained the secret Anom app. When booting up the phone, it displays a logo for an operating system called “ArcaneOS.” Very little information is publicly available on ArcaneOS. It’s this detail that has helped lead several people who have ended up with Anom phones to realize something was unusual about their device. Most posts online discussing the operating system appear to be written by people who have recently inadvertently bought an Anom device, and found it doesn’t work like an ordinary phone. After the FBI announced the Anom operation, some Anom users have scrambled to get rid of their device, including selling it to unsuspecting people online. The person Motherboard obtained the phone from was in Australia, where authorities initially spread the Anom devices as a pilot before expanding into other countries.

Read more of this story at Slashdot.

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