The FBI’s Fake Encrypted Honeypot Phones Are Showing Up Online

The FBI’s Fake Encrypted Honeypot Phones Are Showing Up Online
Photo: Olivier MORIN / AFP, Getty Images

About a month ago, it was revealed that an encrypted phone company was actually a front for a gargantuan FBI operation called “Trojan Shield.” The company, which was really a law enforcement honeypot, sold a product called “ANOM,” an encrypted chat application installed on specific, hardened phones that the bureau was secretly distributing to track and monitor organised crime groups.

Criminals thought they were getting a secure, impenetrable communication platform but, in reality, their networks were owned by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies — the devices having been designed by the bureau in collaboration with a high-level criminal informant who had previously sold such hardened, encrypted devices to underworld networks.

Now it’s being reported by Motherboard that those phones are weirdly being resold on the secondary market, popping up on Craigslist-like forums and online retailers.

Online forums devoted to Android merchandise have been abuzz with talk about how these phones, stripped of their original powers, now seem to be circulating as cheap, used products on online retailer sites.

“I bought this phone online, for ridiculously low price, now I understand why,” one second-hand buyer told Motherboard. “Probably this phone was used by some drug dealer :D,” they added.

“This is a phone the used with that FBI ANON [sic] application to read the message with the users,” another forum user helpfully wrote, in a poorly worded PSA.

For the most part, the phones don’t seem to work anymore and many of them have largely been wiped of their creepy features. It’s also unclear who’s selling these devices, though one could assume they’re being peddled by former users trying to evade the heat — or at least just get some of their money back.

Motherboard actually managed to get ahold of one of the phones, procuring it from one of the people who had bought it second-hand. Thus, the outlet has revealed some really interesting details about the device and, suffice it to say, it’s pretty weird.

Upon first glance, the phone seems normal: A user inputs a PIN to log in, taking them to what looks like a fairly normal home screen. But the device comes equipped with what are, essentially, decoy apps — stuff like Netflix, Instagram, Snapchat, and Tinder — that, if you click on them, don’t actually work. Instead, to get a functioning interface, a user has to reset the phone and type in a different PIN. Doing this resets the home screen, leaving only a clock and calculator app and the device’s settings. If the calculator app is clicked on, it delivers a new login screen, prompting the user to enter an “Anom ID” and a password. From there, the phone’s real purpose — to act as an encrypted, clandestine communication channel — is ostensibly opened.

The phone also apparently offers “a shortcut for what appears to be a wipe feature on the phone, with an icon showing a piece of paper going through a shredder,” Motherboard reports, in reference to an apparent data wiping feature.

So, yeah, fairly cloak-and-dagger stuff. Anyway, if you see a cheap, weird phone for sale on some obscure web forum that matches this description, probably best to steer clear. You’re either being sold a useless, former honeypot device or maybe stumbling into the next federal sting operation, both of which sound like bad times all around.