Privacy in Today’s World

Darknet Diaries recently published a podcast that caught our attention. In this podcast, Jack Rhysider interviewed Joseph Cox, author of Dark Wire. Joseph told an interesting story: an encrypted phone sold to criminals but monitored by the FBI. This is such an interesting story related to the internet, encryption, and privacy, it’s worth a discussion.

The phone was a modified Google Pixel 4a known as ANOM. It was created by a person that is known by the alias Afgoo. By opening the calculator app and using special key codes, the user would access the hidden messaging app. It was a secure communication device, meaning that it included features like end-to-end encryption, voice scrambling, and had all GPS functionality removed. The voice scrambling feature even included two options that either made your voice distorted and low pitched, or distorted and high pitched. The phone was advertised as a phone “for criminals by criminals.” The phone itself was not illegal, however, the process through which it was advertised and sold to criminals was highly questionable if not illegal.

How did the FBI get Involved?

The FBI got involved in 2018, along with the Australian Federal Police, when Afgoo’s lawyer offered them a deal to have access to ANOM servers in exchange for leniency if Afgoo ever faced charges. The FBI accepted. To get ANOM into the hands of criminals, Afgoo brought it to the attention of a criminal named Domenico Catanzarati who used to sell another type of secure phone. Catanzarati sold ANOM to other criminals across Australia, giving the FBI access to all of their messages. The FBI was now involved in the sale of secure phones for criminals. The FBI… think about that.

How was this Legal?

ANOM did eventual make its way to the US from Australia, but the FBI still had access to every single message sent through ANOM. That made us think, “wait, how is that legal.” The FBI knew that they could not look at messages sent from within the US; they would risk breaking the fourth amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure. If the FBI were to look at messages from the US, they would need a warrant and probable cause. Because of the fourth amendment and not being granted a warrant, the FBI never looked at messages sent within the US and only looked at messages sent from other countries. This allowed the FBI to work with foreign agencies to monitor crime and intervene when possible.

This might leave the question, “How did they filter through all of the messages?” Since the FBI needed to avoid US messages and find life-threatening situations within millions of messages, they developed an AI to help. The AI was known as Hola iBot. Hola iBot was created four years after Amazon Alexa was released and four before ChatGPT. This data analytics focused on key words that might indicate a life-threatening situation and photos sent along with the messages to try and determine where the crime might take place. They would then let the appropriate country’s agency know as soon as possible.

How it Ended

Of course, all things can’t continue forever. ANOM was continuously growing and was starting to become too much to handle. On June 7, 2021, a global operation was conducted that resulted in hundreds of arrests in more than a dozen countries. The arrested people included drug traffickers, money launderers, and firearms dealers. The FBI’s operation with ANOM, known internally as “Trojan Shield” was officially over.

Takeaway

After finishing our research, we were left questioning if anything was actually anonymous.  We know things that may seem encrypted, but in reality, actually aren’t. WhatsApp for example, is encrypted but still uses Meta servers. These servers are not completely private. What you say online, even encrypted, has the chance of being monitored. Jack Rhysider, the host of Darknet Diaries, expressed his opinion about valuing his privacy several times throughout his interview with Joseph Cox. He was frustrated that such a secure phone would be solely marketed towards criminals, making it illegal, while people like him would have loved to have a secure phone like ANOM. Why not market such a secure phone to the entire world? This discussion also brings up the question of whether we can have anonymity at all in today’s world.