This is what the pixel phone the FBI used to fool criminals around the world looks like


Missing system settings, always activated GPS: Actually, the suspects should have noticed that a prepared device was being hailed them.

It still sounds like something out of a thriller: In June, it became known that law enforcement agencies around the world headed by the FBI had wiretapped gangs of criminals – with prepared smartphones that they had previously slipped on them. As a result, around 800 suspects were arrested in 16 countries and a total of 27 million messages were intercepted that the suspects actually thought were encrypted and therefore safe. But the investigators could read every message.

So far it was only known what was in the official reports. For example, that the FBI, together with international partners, set up a fake company called ANOM as early as 2018 to sell their products in relevant forums. They were helped by a former trader whom the FBI had arrested and subsequently recruited. Together they sold a prepared Android smartphone on online black markets, which contained a messaging app in a secure area, hidden behind a calculator app. It was advertised as being particularly safe, but in reality it was a honeypot for the investigators.

Now the first of these smartphones have appeared. The US magazine Vice could get one of them and thus take a closer look at it.



GPS could not be deactivated

The device is a Google Pixel 4. The Pixel series is considered to be extremely modding-friendly, which is why the investigators may have opted for exactly this model as the basis. When the device starts, a start screen for a system called ArcaneOS appears. As Vice reports, messages from confused users who had purchased one of the devices but did not know what ArcaneOS is have appeared in various online forums over the past two years. Also within the modding and Rome community the reports initially met with astonishment.

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In order to give the impression that it really is a secure system, those responsible at the FBI have built in some suspected security functions. We are talking about a login screen on which the numbers are arranged differently after each blocking – so that nobody can simply read the PIN. A quick access in the status bar is said to have suggested deleting all data on the device with one click. Other, real, privacy-optimized devices also offer similar functions.

Of course, none of this worked. In general, the prepared pixel phones were barely functional. You could neither write e-mails nor make phone calls with it. Popular apps such as Facbeook, Instagram and Google services were displayed on the home screen by default, but some contacts were already entered. But they were just supposed to give the appearance of an ordinary device and were in a sense just dummy in case the cell phone fell into the wrong hands. The actual function of the smartphone emerged first when you entered a second pin: Then a secret area of ​​the system was opened. Namely those with the camouflaged calculator chat app, which presumably could be used to communicate securely with other ANOM users.

Otherwise, the FBI developers had removed some standard functions from Android. So it was impossible to turn off the GPS tracking, which should have seemed strange to the buyers. Just like the fact that the settings for storage, apps and accounts were missing. As Ars Technica writes, is said to have even displayed a message from Google when booting, indicating that a foreign operating system was installed. Something the suspects safely ignored in front of the FBI.

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