The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)’s San Diego Field Office announced Tuesday that Anom, an encrypted communication platform controlled by the authority and popularly used among criminal organizations, led to the success of Operation Trojan Shield, in which more than 800 suspects were arrested around the world.
Coordinated by the FBI, Australian Federal Police, Europol, and law enforcement partners in more than a dozen countries in recent days and weeks, authorities had carried out hundreds of arrests in Australia and across Europe in this international covert effort, and seized over 32 tons of drugs, 250 firearms, 55 luxury cars and more than 48 million U.S. dollars in cash and cryptocurrencies.
The FBI’s San Diego Field Office said in a statement that it was the hub for the more than 100 agents and analysts, and 80 linguists who were pooled together for the operation that began with the takedown of Phantom Secure, a company that provided hardened encrypted devices to criminal organizations, in 2018.
The FBI’s San Diego branch then recruited a confidential source who worked on a next generation encrypted devices and had ties to Phantom Secure’s shadowy distribution network. These co-agents agreed to let the FBI take control of the new device, dubbed Anom, and help it spread.Before the device could be put to use, agencies in the United States and other countries worked with the source to build a master key into the existing encryption system which surreptitiously attaches to each message and enables law enforcement to decrypt and store the message as it is transmitted.
From its first foothold in Australia, the Anom network spread to more than 100 countries and regions, Europol said, the top five countries where Anom devices were currently used were Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Australia, and Serbia. The FBI said law enforcement agencies worked together to supply “more than 12,000 devices to hundreds of criminal organizations that operate around the globe.” These devices are typically purchased through word-of-mouth referral networks for between 1,200 U.S. dollars and 2,000 dollars each, and buyers were told that they were specially designed with robust data encryption tools and could be wiped clean remotely if they fall into the hands of law enforcement.
However, the FBI was being copied on every message texted each other from drug deals to money laundering through the device, totally some 27 millions of them worldwide. FBI San Diego Assistant Special Agent in Charge Jamie Arnold was quoted as saying that “this was a creative and innovative way for us to get behind that firewall and see what was happening among the leadership of these criminal organizations.”
Arnold said the erosion of trust in these networks was a primary goal, along with gathering invaluable investigative information.”Criminal groups using encrypted communications to thwart law enforcement should no longer feel safe in that space,” Arnold said. “We hope criminals worldwide will fear that the FBI or another law enforcement organization may, in fact, be running their platform.”