Rights group questions DEA exploit of encrypted cellphones

The advocacy group Human Rights Watch is highlighting the first known case of U.S. agents supplying criminal suspects with ostensibly encrypted smartphones rigged to allow wiretapping

HRW researcher Sarah St. Vincent says the government's distribution of such devices could violate the privacy of non-criminals unless it establishes clear procedures for its agents.

In a case involving a cocaine-trafficking ring based in Mexico, court papers say undercover agents supplied group members in southern California with compromised devices beginning as early as 2010.

DEA spokesman Wade Sparks said Thursday he could not discuss investigative techniques or HRW concerns that communications over the booby-trapped phones may have been intercepted before agents obtained a judge's wiretap order. He said the case is still not fully adjudicated.