Reason Roundup

The FBI Secretly Ran an Encrypted Messaging Service To Conduct the Same Old Drug War Stings

Plus: ACLU identity crisis, Texas bans vaccine rules, and more...

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Is your encrypted messaging app being monitored by the FBI? Newly unsealed court documents show that the federal law enforcement agency for years ran an encrypted communications service called Anom.

"The FBI opened a new covert operation, Operation Trojan Shield, which centered on exploiting Anom by inserting it into criminal networks and working with international partners, including the Australian Federal Police ("AFP"), to monitor the communications," reads to a May 18 affidavit filed by FBI Special Agent Nicholas Cheviron. The FBI, AFP, and their developer source "built a master key into the existing encryption system which surreptitiously attaches to each message and enables law enforcement to decrypt and store the message as it is transmitted."

Starting in 2018, the FBI collected "encrypted messages of all of the users of Anoms with a few exceptions (e.g., the messages of approximately 15 Anom's users in the U.S. sent to any other Anom device are not reviewed by the FBI)," it says. Since October 2019, the FBI has catalogued "more than 20 million messages from a total of 11,800 devices (with approximately 9,000 active devices currently) located in over 90 countries."

Most of this monitoring seems to have been in service of the sniffing out drugs. In the affidavit's "small but representative sample of the criminal content" reviewed, all messages were related to cocaine or narcotics.

Authorities began announcing the results of the operation—including 700 houses searched and more than 800 arrests—at a Tuesday morning press conference in The Hague.

Calvin Shivers of the FBI called it "a shining example of what can be accomplished when international law enforcement partners from around the world work together and develop state-of-the-art investigative tools to detect, disrupt and dismantle transnational criminal organizations." Jean-Philippe Lecouffe, deputy director for operations of Europol, said the Anom operation was "one of the largest and most sophisticated law enforcement operations to date in the fight against encrypted criminal activities." Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said it "struck a heavy blow against organized crime … around the world."

But for a global spy enterprise with seemingly unprecedented to criminal communications—spanning tens of millions of messages on thousands of devices reviewed by more than 9,000 cops in 16 countries—the results actually seem … rather lackluster? Internationally, the operation seized 250 guns, 55 cars, and $48 million in cash and cryptocurrency, plus 22 tons of marijuana and marijuana resin, eight tons of cocaine, and two tons of methamphetamine and amphetamine.

Basically, it was a big old Drug War bonanza, dressed up in fancy tech tools.


FREE MINDS

The ACLU's identity crisis. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was once known for defending the free speech rights of those with views outside the mainstream. But in recent years, that's been changing. The organization "has emerged as a muscular and richly funded progressive powerhouse in recent years, taking on the Trump administration in more than 400 lawsuits," notes The New York Times. "But the organization finds itself riven with internal tensions over whether it has stepped away from a founding principle—unwavering devotion to the First Amendment."


FREE MARKETS

Hypocrisy on display in Texas. The same politicians and crowds who complained loudly about governments telling private businesses they had to take certain pandemic-related precautions (like requiring masks) are now cheering governments telling private businesses they cannot take other pandemic-related precautions. In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott just signed a law saying that businesses can't even ask potential customers about vaccination status.

"This actually is the toddler's conception of freedom libertarians get wrongly accused of holding: 'I'm free to do what I please without regard for others; you're free to indulge me, because I might feel less free if you get to make choices too,'" commented the Cato Institute's Julian Sanchez. 

"Bad enough that he'd tell business owners how to run their shops, but he's doing it to pander to people who are keeping the pandemic going," tweeted conservative blogger and editor Allahpundit.

Why is it so hard for most political figures and their tribes to let people make their own decisions and to apply the same standards of liberty for things they personally agree with to things they don't? Everyone being in a rush to use government force to push their preferred agendas is how we get the hyper-partisan, crush-or-be-crushed mentality that drives so much of our political dysfunction today.


QUICK HITS

• "The U.S. Supreme Court refused Monday to consider a challenge to the men-only military draft," NPR reports.

• The Court also rejected a challenge to vaping regulations.

• Sen. Elizabeth Warren's (D–Mass.) plan to close the "tax gap" doesn't add up.

• The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a new Alzheimer's treatment.

• Would-be refugees get a kinder, gentler stay-the-fuck-out from the Biden administration:

• Louisiana lawmakers vote to lessen penalties for marijuana. "If signed into law, the bill would reduce criminal penalties for possession of marijuana not exceeding 14 grams," reports The Hill. "In instances where the offender possesses up to that amount, they will be fined no more than $100. The law would apply to cases where the offender is on their first conviction or any subsequent conviction."