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An XDA member unknowingly bought a Pixel phone with an FBI back door

XDA Forums routinely gets new users who have issues with their phones, but an unfortunate user ended up with an issue that no one knew how to fix. As it turns out, this user had purchased a used Pixel phone that was not originally sold by Google or an official retailer, but rather by the US Federal Bureau of Investigations or the FBI. This phone came with a custom ROM called ArcaneOS and had pre-installed messaging software called “ANOM” which was secretly made by the FBI to catch criminals discussing their criminal activities.

An XDA member posted on our Pixel 4a forums in late May seeking help from others to remove the ArcaneOS software and install Google’s official Android build. Another user on the German Android forums Android help also had a similar issue with their Pixel phone back in March, but they had a Pixel 3a instead of the Pixel 4a that the XDA user had.

At the time both users posted online, the existence of ArcaneOS and ANOM had not been made public, so no one knew what the two users̵

7; phones were actually running. ArcaneOS lacked Google Mobile Services (and therefore did not have Play Store), hid the ability to turn on Developer Options, and also apparently changed the bootloader image, making it difficult for users to unlock the bootloader to flash stock firmware. The phones’ bootloaders were locked despite not running firmware in stock, and this is possible because Pixel phones support running alternative operating systems on a locked bootloader as long as you add their own signature key to the Android Verified Boot (AVB) process . How to boot the Pixel on a Pixel phone after flashing a security hardened custom ROM like CalyxOS or GrapheneOS, and it’s likely how the FBI also loaded ArcaneOS on Pixel phones they sold to criminals.

After it was made clear that the XDA user essentially had a paperweight on their hands, of course, they relaxed. They did not say where it ended, but it is likely that this is the same phone as Vice recently got their hands on. The team on Vice discovered the truth behind the phone’s software: It’s a phone that the FBI sells to criminals so they can log their communications for evidence of criminal activity.

Anom app on a Pixel 4a.

Anom app on a Pixel 4a. Credits: Vice.

Locking the phone with a normal PIN code shows some normal apps like Tinder, Netflix and Facebook, but none of the apps actually open when you tap their icon. However, locking the Pixel phone with a different PIN reveals icons for a clock app, a calculator app, and device settings. If you tap the calculator icon, a calculator app will not actually open. Instead, it opens a login screen for the ANOM service, an “encrypted” messaging service secretly operated by the FBI. After the existence of ANOM was revealed, criminals quickly sought to get rid of their devices, which is probably how the unfortunate XDA user got hold of a Pixel 4a on such an occasion.

For more details on the FBI’s honeypot operation and the ANOM service, I recommend reading Vice‘s excellent coverage on the subject.

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