The FBI secretly launched an encrypted messaging system for criminals in a yearslong international sting operation. The operation, jointly conceived by Australia and the FBI, saw devices with the ANOM app secretly distributed among criminals, allowing police to monitor their chats about drug smuggling, money laundering and even murder plots.
As Vice reported based on Hughes’ work, Anom started in 2018 after police shut down Phantom Secure, an encrypted device network used mostly (the FBI alleges exclusively) by drug traffickers and other organized criminals. An unnamed informant, who had previously sold Phantom Secure phones, told the FBI they were building a “next generation” encrypted device called Anom. The informant offered the system to the FBI and Australian Federal Police in exchange for a reduced sentence on criminal charges, then agreed to sell Anom phones to their existing distribution network that catered to organized crime, giving the new system credibility.
More than 800 suspected criminals have been arrested worldwide after being tricked into using an FBI-run encrypted messaging app, officials say. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the operation had “struck a heavy blow against organized crime” around the world.
European Union police agency Europol described Operation Trojan Shield/Greenlight as the “biggest ever law enforcement operation against encrypted communication”.
The operation, code-named Trojan Shield, represented a breakthrough for law enforcement, which has struggled in recent years to penetrate the increasingly high-tech covert communications of criminals. Although the authorities have cracked or shut down encrypted platforms in the past — such as one called EncroChat that the police in Europe successfully hacked — this is the first known instance in which officials have controlled an entire encrypted network from its inception.
In total, some 9,000 police officers around the world were involved in the sting.
Calvin Shivers of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division said the operation had enabled police agencies to “turn the tables on criminal organizations”, with intelligence gathered preventing murders and a number of other crimes.
“We were actually able to see photographs of hundreds of tons of cocaine that were concealed in shipments of fruit,” he said.
The FBI is expected to present more details later on Tuesday.