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The FBI Secretly Ran The Anom Messaging Platform, Yielding Hundreds Of Arrests In Global Sting

Monitoring of encrypted communications yielded over 800 arrests in 16 countries of suspected members of crime networks. The FBI Secretly Ran The Anom Messaging Platform, Yielding Hundreds Of Arrests In Global Sting


 

Hundreds of suspected members of criminal networks have been arrested by authorities around the world after being duped into using an encrypted communications platform secretly run by the FBI to hatch their plans for alleged crimes including drug smuggling and money laundering.

In the global sting operation dubbed “Operation Trojan Shield,” an international coalition of law-enforcement agencies led by the Federal Bureau of Investigation covertly monitored the encrypted communications service Anom, which purported to offer a feature cherished in the criminal underworld: total secrecy.

The sting was revealed this week in a series of news conferences by authorities in the U.S., Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Alleged members of international criminal organizations adopted the platform as a means to communicate securely, unaware that authorities were covertly monitoring 27 million messages from more than 12,000 users across more than 100 countries, officials said.

The takedown involved more than 9,000 law-enforcement offices around the world that had searched 700 locations in the previous 48 hours alone, U.S. and European officials said early Tuesday. Police forces had in recent days carried out more than 800 arrests in 16 countries and seized more than 8 tons of cocaine, 22 tons of cannabis and 2 tons of synthetic drugs, as well as 250 firearms, 55 luxury vehicles and over $48 million in various currencies. More than 150 threats to human life were also disrupted, officials said.

In the U.S., the FBI charged 17 foreign nationals operating in places including Australia, the Netherlands and Spain with distributing encrypted Anom communications devices, saying they violated federal racketeering laws typically used to target organized-crime groups, officials said. Eight of those individuals are in custody and nine remain at large, they said.

The global effort put any other companies offering such services on notice that law-enforcement agencies world-wide consider developing and selling technology aimed at defeating their ability to monitor and intercept communications to be unlawful—the latest salvo in a debate unfolding globally about how to balance security and privacy on technology platforms.

Authorities, who see encrypted platforms like Anom as providing a haven for illicit activity beyond the reach of government monitoring, signaled that intelligence agencies and law enforcement would aggressively seek to infiltrate platforms designed in such a way that they can be used by terrorists and criminal gangs to evade detection.

“The immense and unprecedented success of Operation Trojan Shield should be a warning to international criminal organizations—your criminal communications may not be secure; and you can count on law enforcement world-wide working together to combat dangerous crime that crosses international borders,” said Suzanne Turner, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s San Diego field office.

Investigators in that office have been involved with Anom since 2018, when they co-opted and began running the service, which makes and distributes a type of secure, encrypted mobile device that has grown popular among criminals in recent years.

Anom devices are special mobile phones, costing thousands of dollars each, that have a single application for covert communication installed, with regular smartphone elements such as GPS removed for security and anonymity. They also can be remotely wiped when they are seized by law enforcement.

Similar devices were once sold on the open market. But after the 2018 arrest of an executive at a company called Phantom Secure, the distribution of mobile devices meant to evade law-enforcement access has increasingly moved underground. Governments in North America, Europe and Australia have all brought cases or opened investigations aimed at criminalizing the sale of such services and devices.

According to U.S. court documents, one user boasted about his ability to move drugs internationally using French diplomatic pouches—the envelopes or packages that diplomats are authorized to use under the rules of international diplomacy without being searched.

The coalition of law-enforcement agencies involved in the effort—with Australia, Sweden and the Netherlands in leading roles—highlights the stepped-up international response to the global trade in illegal drugs in recent years.

The sting operation also marks the latest development in a global battle over encryption, privacy and security. People around the world have shifted onto encrypted communications platforms such as Signal, WhatsApp and Telegram, making their communication more difficult for law-enforcement and intelligence authorities to intercept.

Such apps offer users more security and privacy in response to concerns about hacking and data leaks, but also make investigations more difficult. While authorities have expressed concerns about the nefarious use of such apps, activists say encryption and secure communications are important for dissidents in authoritarian countries, journalists reporting sensitive stories and other users concerned about privacy.

Law-enforcement authorities say devices like Anom can go a step further than such commercial apps.

International law-enforcement agencies have targeted companies that manufacture such devices, alleging they are part of a criminal conspiracy to deny law enforcement access to evidence.

The chief executive of Canada-based Phantom Secure, one such company, pleaded guilty in 2018 to charges of operating a criminal enterprise and received a nine-year sentence in the U.S.

European authorities also previously infiltrated EncroChat, a similar service that made hardened Android phones with encryption capabilities, shutting down the service last year and bringing charges against users suspected of organized crime.

In March, a federal grand jury indicted the CEO of Sky Global, another company based in Canada, on similar charges after an investigation that has had international repercussions.

Belgian authorities arrested dozens of suspects in March in one of the largest police operations in the country’s history after breaching Sky Global devices that they say were used from South America to Europe and Dubai to coordinate illegal drug shipments and attempted killings and torture, for example. The CEO of the company, Jean-François Eap, has denied wrongdoing.

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