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FBI Phone Hack May Have Monitored Americans in Operation Trojan Shield

by Jayson Hawkins

The tale reads like a Hollywood version of undercover police work, but Operation Trojan Shield really happened. The FBI was monitoring encrypted traffic on the “black devices” favored by criminals as soon as they came out of the box. Now, new questions are being asked about the possibility of improper monitoring of devices inside the U.S. after documents were obtained by journalists through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The story, as reported by CLN in November 2021, began after American and European police shut down the main providers in the encrypted phone industry in 2020. One of the people arrested in those operations offered the FBI access to a newly developed encryption technology. The FBI, police from Europe and Australia, and the informant formed a company called Anom that distributed phones advertised as impossible to locate or monitor. The only catch was that all the data on the phones were decrypted and read by police.

The operation distributed nearly 12,000 phones, monitored reams of traffic, and eventually resulted in hundreds of arrests. This type of spectacular success would ordinarily be followed by a victory lap from police, but the public-relations campaign surrounding Operation Trojan Shield has been uncharacteristically subdued. Newly released documents may explain why.

The problem revolves around warrantless monitoring inside the U.S., which is illegal. At first, the FBI asserted that, for the most part, it was nearly impossible to tell if a device was being used in the U.S., even if the phones were originally shipped here. This position began to unravel when it became clear how accurate the Anom GPS data is, even though users were assured their phones could never be located through GPS. Documents obtained by journalists at Motherboard show that “harvested GPS coordinates are generally reliable, because they accurately match location data collected in other ways.”

To counter the revelation that they could determine which phones were being used in the U.S., the FBI then asserted that Anom messages were collected on a server in a third country and that any messages from a phone with a U.S. Mobile Country Code were filtered from the data transferred to the FBI. Devices conclusively identified as being in the U.S. were purportedly monitored by the Australians.

This explanation presents its own problems, as outlined in a statement by U.S. Senator Ron Wyden: “Intelligence agencies cannot ask foreign partners to conduct surveillance that the U.S. would be legally prohibited from doing itself. ... Allegations that the FBI outsourced warrantless surveillance of Americans to a foreign government raise troubling questions about the Justice Department’s oversight of these practices.”

Unsurprisingly, both the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office declined to comment about any aspect of Operation Trojan Shield. 


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