by Derek Gilna
Drug Enforcement Administration (“DEA”) agents apparently supplied suspected cocaine-traffickers with smartphones that the users thought were encrypted but instead were modified with eavesdropping technology.
According to Human Rights Watch (“HRW”), it is unknown how often the DEA or other federal agencies have utilized this technique. However, the advocacy group is concerned about possible privacy violations.
“I think there are real debates to be had as to whether that is lawful or should be lawful,” Sarah St. Vincent of HRW said. “They could use this on peaceful protesters, [though] there’s no evidence of that.” At least none that has become public.
Details of the 2012 drug-trafficking investigation, which recently came to light, involved a Canadian, John Krokos, who pleaded guilty in 2015, and at least one other co-defendant who still awaits trial. The defendants were duped into using phones supplied by undercover federal agents, thinking that they were encrypted. Instead, their communications were easily intercepted.
In a court affidavit, one DEA agent said, “I believe that, since the [BlackBerrys] had encryption technology on them, Krokos felt relatively safe in communicating over the devices.” However, HRW said, “Available court documents suggest the DEA may not have obtained court orders for the wiretapping until after the booby-trapped devices had been delivered in exchanges typically occurring in parking lots in southern California.”
The DEA was mum on the details of the surveillance.
“We can’t comment on the case or any of the techniques used until the case is fully adjudicated,” DEA spokesman John Sparks said, and the DEA is not going to “give out investigative techniques one way or the other, especially with ongoing cases awaiting adjudication."
BlackBerry denied any involvement in the DEA investigation and noted that the encryption keys are controlled by the customer, in this case the federal government. The company, like many other tech companies, has reportedly been pressured by the federal government to give them a “back door” into encrypted equipment, but thus far, most have apparently resisted this pressure.
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