The FBI Used Smartphone Encryption to its Advantage to Catch Druglords, Here’s How

The FBI and law enforcement agencies from over 16 countries created a service called ANOM to catch criminals using fake smartphones.


Policemen don’t like encryption. Period. It allows criminals to make their communication untraceable and hide their online footprints. Law enforcement agencies and governments around the world, including India, have been asking service providers like WhatsApp, Signal and others to build backdoors into their encrypted services. We don’t know whether that will happen, but nothing’s stopping law enforcement bodies like the FBI from using encryption to their advantage. Enter Anom, a company that claimed to provide encrypted smartphones to criminals, while actually allowing law enforcement agencies from over 16 countries to track everything that they did.

As described by Motherboard, these Anom smartphones didn’t allow you to download any apps, and were meant for a specific purpose. They ran on an operating system called ArcaneOS, which seems to be unheard of otherwise. They also didn’t have any settings to turn location history on or off. Users could, however, scramble their PIN, which means the lock screen passcode would be jumbled so people couldn’t just look over your shoulder and see what you’re typing.

“The goal of the new platform was to target global organised crime, drug trafficking, and money laundering organisations, regardless of where they operated, and offer an encrypted device with features sought by the organised crime networks, such as remote wipe and duress passwords, to persuade criminal networks to pivot to the device,” Europol said in a statement.

The smartphones allowed the law enforcement agencies, including police in Australia, the FBI, the US Drug Enforcement Agencies and more to catch over 800 criminals. Anom was servicing over 12000 devices in over 100 countries, and to 300 crime syndicates, which included motorcycle gangs, the Italian Mafia and more. 

The investigation began in 2019, after the FBI had taken down two companies that provided such devices to criminals. Having created a void in the market by the takedowns, the agencies decided to run their own service and dupe criminals into using such phones. They used a confidential informant to distribute the devices, and recorded all their messages, photos and more.