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Phones the FBI secretly sold to criminals were hacked Pixels

FBI-hacked Pixel 4a and Pixel 3a phones are now out in the wild for sale on the aftermarket.

Published onJuly 8, 2021

Google Pixel 4a vs Google Pixel 3a backs 1
David Imel / Android Authority
  • The FBI hacked phones with custom software and a hidden messaging app called Anom. It then sold these phones to criminals.
  • However, the Anom app wasn’t encrypted or secure, and the FBI listened in on criminal chats for years.
  • Now, these hacked phones — which appear to be mostly Pixel 4a and Pixel 3a devices — are appearing for sale on aftermarket sites.

Last month, a story broke about a Federal Bureau of Investigation operation that resulted in hundreds of arrests. The FBI created a real company that sold ultra-secure Android smartphones to people for whom privacy is paramount — which mostly meant criminals.

On these phones was an app called Anom, which was the star feature of the FBI’s “company.” Anom was a hidden messaging app that the FBI touted as being secure and private. Of course, the criminals who bought these FBI phones used Anom to coordinate criminal activity. The problem was, though, that Anom wasn’t private and the FBI was listening to every word.

Related: Can your ISP see your browsing history? Here’s what you need to know.

Armed with tons of evidence, the FBI then arrested hundreds of criminals. It’s now become one of the most successful ops in recent memory.

However, what happened to all those phones? Surely not everyone who bought one used it for criminal activity. Well, it turns out that some of the phones are ending up on aftermarket sites similar to Craigslist here in the United States. People are then buying the phones thinking they are normal Android phones at a bargain price.

Vice was able to get ahold of one of these FBI phones by contacting people who unwittingly bought one. So far, evidence suggests that most of the phones are Pixels from A-series, such as the Pixel 4a and Pixel 3a.

FBI phones: Nothing but a show

Google Pixel 4a home screen in hand 1
David Imel / Android Authority

Although the phones are Pixels, they don’t come with the Pixel UI on top of Android. Instead, they come with a custom ROM known as Arcane OS. Little is known about the origins of Arcane OS, but it appears to render most of the phone’s functions useless.

For example, almost none of the pre-installed apps actually work. If you tap the Instagram app, for example, nothing happens. The whole operating system exists for show to give the illusion that the phone is normal. Upon a reboot, you would then enter a specific PIN which brings up a different — but still normal-looking — home screen. If you opened the calculator app from this screen, it would open Anom. You could then login and start chatting.

See also: Is selling your privacy for a cheaper phone really a good idea?

In the Quick Settings, there was a shortcut to wipe the entire phone (signified by an icon that looks like a paper shredder). The whole point of the FBI phones was to funnel criminals to use Anom under the pretense that it was safe to talk about anything.

If you have the time, the whole Vice article is worth a read. Vice also has an article giving in-depth details about how the FBI created its fake company.

If you find that you have unwittingly purchased one of these FBI phones, we’d love to hear from you.

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