How safe are encrypted platforms? FBI created ‘secure’ messaging app as part of international sting to catch drug lords
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June 11, 2021 (LifeSiteNews) – Users of encrypted messaging services who assume their communications are kept private may want to think twice.
Social media users concerned about personal privacy and free speech amid the unprecedented censorship and overreach by Big Tech corporations have begun turning to encrypted apps like Signal and Telegram which promise freedom from prying eyes. But not every messaging service which presents itself as secure may actually be what it seems.
In the FBI-led global sting operation called “Operation Trojan Shield” which took the world by surprise this week, international law enforcement agencies developed and deployed a fake encrypted messaging service called “Anom” to secretly surveil users’ communications in a sweeping worldwide operation which led to the arrests of over 800 suspected members of transnational criminal organizations.
According to The Wall Street Journal, “Anom” used cell phones equipped with a single secure-messaging app promising users “total secrecy.”
Unaware that the service they thought was safe had actually been designed by the FBI to track down members of international crime syndicates, users across the world allegedly communicated details of illegal activities through “Anom” without fear that their conversations would be intercepted.
But the promised privacy of the platform was an illusion, with international law enforcement authorities secretly “monitoring 27 million messages from more than 12,000 users across more than 100 countries.”
“This is a complicated issue,” Dan Gainor told LifeSiteNews in an email Friday.
Gainor is Vice President of Free Speech America, Business and Culture for the Media Research Center, the media watchdog organization which runs Newsbusters, whose 24/7 recording and documenting operation is dedicated to exposing liberal media bias.
“Naturally, we want the FBI and other crime-fighting organizations to stop crime,” Gainor said. That’s what we pay them to do.”
“At the same time, Americans value their privacy in an increasingly intrusive world. These two desires smash into one another here.”
Gainor expressed concern about the wide-ranging implications of government surveillance when wielded by government entities that adhere to political ideologies which are openly hostile to conservative values.
Gainor observed that President Joe Biden recently declared “white supremacy is terrorism,” a stark weaponization of the spurious pejorative frequently lobbed by the political left against conservatives who hold mainstream right-leaning perspectives on issues like critical race theory, border security, and voter ID laws.
“That’s not criticizing an action, that’s a thought crime,” Gainor said. “Under that interpretation anything they don’t like, including opposition to critical race theory, could be suspect. And the government could target it.”
An affidavit which was unsealed in U.S. federal court this week revealed that Operation Trojan Shield began in 2018 after law enforcement dismantled an existing encrypted service in use by international criminal gangs and filled the void with “Anom,” a next-generation device developed by the FBI in collaboration with a confidential source.
The devices were then distributed to users who trusted "Anom" to provide much-desired secrecy and security.
“It’s not surprising that the FBI would set something up like that,” author and Editor-in-Chief of Crisis Magazine Eric Sammons told LifeSiteNews in an email Thursday. “No one should think that online communications are ever 100% private and secure.”
But users of commercially available encrypted apps, many of whom have sought out the alternative platforms to evade the predations of Big Tech, may indeed be operating under the assumption that their communications are private, or at least safe from overreaching censorship and control.
With former President Donald Trump banned from a slew social media platforms and conservative views increasingly targeted for removal from the public square, many people have quit mainstream communications apps and made the move to encrypted messaging services like Signal and Telegram, as well as free-speech social media alternatives like Rumble, Parler, and Gab.
“Tens of millions moved onto the Signal app for encrypted communications,” Gainor told LifeSite. “Suppose the employees, who have told management they don’t like the app being used this way, leak a backdoor to the government. Or install monitoring software. We might never know.”
Commercially-available encrypted messaging apps are not the same as encrypted services like the FBI’s covert platform “Anom,” which use specialized cell phones designed to thwart surveillance efforts in a way that goes “a step further than such commercial apps,” The Wall Street Journal notes.
But while commercial apps designed to protect users’ privacy don’t fit the same criteria as platforms which use special devices stripped of tracking features, the clever FBI sting operation perhaps suggests that encrypted messaging services may not be as secure as they appear.
“Trojan Shield is a reminder that all electronic communication could potentially be monitored,” Gainor said. “Phone calls, email, messaging and more. Our Brave New World has countless ways to invade our privacy and destroy our freedoms.”