'Every Message Was Copied to the Police': the Daring Sting Behind the An0m Phone


The Guardian tells the story of "a viral sensation in the global underworld," the high-security An0m phones, which launched with "a grassroots marketing campaign, identifying so-called influencers — 'well-known crime figures who wield significant power and influence over other criminal associates', according to a US indictment — within criminal subcultures." An0m could not be bought in a shop or on a website. You had to first know a guy. Then you had to be prepared to pay the astronomical cost: $1,700 for the handset, with a $1,250 annual subscription, an astonishing price for a phone that was unable to make phone calls or browse the internet.

Almost 10,000 users around the world had agreed to pay, not for the phone so much as for a specific application installed on it. Opening the phone's calculator allowed users to enter a sum that functioned as a kind of numeric open sesame to launch a secret messaging application. The people selling the phone claimed that An0m was the most secure messaging service in the world. Not only was every message encrypted so that it could not be read by a digital eavesdropper, it could be received only by another An0m phone user, forming a closed loop system entirely separate from the information speedways along which most text messages travel. Moreover, An0m could not be downloaded from any of the usual app stores. The only way to access it was to buy a phone with the software preinstalled...

[U]sers could set an option to wipe the phone's data if the device went offline for a specified amount of time. Users could also set especially sensitive messages to self-erase after opening, and could record and send voice memos in which the phone would automatically disguise the speaker's voice. An0m was marketed and sold not so much to the security conscious as the security paranoid... An0m was not, however, a secure phone app at all. Every single message sent on the app since its launch in 2018 — 19.37m of them — had been collected, and many of them read by the Australian federal police (AFP) who, together with the FBI, had conceived, built, marketed and sold the devices.

On 7 June 2021, more than 800 arrests were made around the world....

Law enforcement agencies ultimately saw An0m as a creative workaround for unbreakable encryption, according to the Guardian. "Why debate tech companies on privacy issues through costly legal battles if you can simply trick criminals into using your own monitored network?"

The Guradian's story was shared by jd (Slashdot user #1,658), who sees an ethical question. "As the article notes, what's to stop a tyrant doing the same against rivals or innocent protestors?"