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The FBI exploited a coterie of criminal “influencers” and their clout in the illicit underworld to peddle an encrypted phone to fellow delinquents they thought was completely secret but was actually being monitored by law enforcement right under their noses.
The device, created by the FBI with a confidential informant seeking to escape jail time, ended up in the hands of thousands of criminals and was the key to a massive, “unprecedented” takedown of crime groups across the globe that was unveiled Tuesday, authorities said.
The phones, which only had the capability to send messages, were first introduced to the criminal underworld in October 2018 and were marketed as a new hardened encrypted device “designed by criminals, for criminals,” federal prosecutors in California explained.
“Transnational criminal organizations flock to these devices because they provided, until now, an unpentrentable shield against law enforcement surveillance and detection,” said Assistant US Attorney Randy Grossman.
The tech isn’t available in traditional commercial markets — and has to come from fellow malefactors.
“Closed encryption devices may look like an ordinary cell phone but in fact they are stripped of any outside application. There is no GPS, no email, no connect to Facebook,” Suzanne Turner, the special-agent-in-charge of the FBI’s San Diego field office, which led the probe, explained.
“The only practical use is for secure messaging, it’s a closed loop environment meaning you can only message those who have the same brand device. Most importantly, you cannot walk into a Verizon or AT&T store and purchase one of these devices. You must know someone who sells them and be vetted by them.”
That’s where the influencers came in.
The confidential informant started by giving the device to three criminal insiders, who’d previously sold similar tech to crime groups, who agreed to distribute the phones to their contacts, a federal search warrant unveiled Tuesday shows.
The devices soon spread across the shadowy underworld of drug trafficking, arms sales, money laundering and contracted murders with the help of criminal influencers who’d gained the trust of their delinquent colleagues.
Federal prosecutors describe the influencers in court records as “well-known crime figures who wield significant power and influence over other criminal associates.”
Similar to social media influencers, criminal influencers have “built a reputation for their knowledge and expertise in the hardened encrypted device field and use that power, knowledge, and expertise to promote, market, and encourage others to use specific hardened encrypted devices,” prosecutors wrote in court papers.
“Influencers have a tremendous impact on users adopting specific hardened encrypted devices.”
Federal prosecutors in the Southern District of California unveiled an indictment of 17 defendants Tuesday who were responsible for distributing the FBI phones — four of whom were named as “influencers.”
Joseph Hakan Ayik, Maximillian Rivkin, Erkan Yusef Dogan and Baris Tukel — who all lived in Turkey — were the influencers who helped spread more than 12,000 devices to over 300 criminal syndicates operating in over 100 different countries, prosecutors said.
Unbeknownst to them, they were putting the FBI directly in the crime groups’ pockets.
“The criminals using these devices believed they were secretly planning crimes far beneath the radar of law enforcement but in reality, the criminals were not underneath the radar, they were on it, the FBI was monitoring those conversations” Grossman said.
“The very devices that criminals used to hide their crimes were actually a beacon for law enforcement.”
Prosecutors said eight of the 17 defendants have already been taken into custody but the four influencers are still on the loose.
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