In the first known case of its kind, U.S. drug agents supplied unwitting cocaine-trafficking suspects in California with smartphones they thought were encrypted but had been rigged to allow eavesdropping, Human Rights Watch reported Friday.
The advocacy group said it feared the technique could be abused to violate the privacy of non-criminals.
Human Rights Watch called on the Drug Enforcement Administration to explain whether the technique — employed in a 2012 southern California case involving a Canadian operating out of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico — is still being employed and whether its use is widespread.
Court papers indicate undercover federal agents first supplied the group with compromised Blackberry cellphones in 2010. Encrypted emails and other communications that the defendants thought were private were instead intercepted by law officers because they had decryption keys.
Available court documents suggest the DEA may not have obtained court orders for the wiretapping until after the booby-trapped devices had been delivered in exchanges typically occurring in parking lots in southern California.