WASHINGTON – Hundreds are facing charges after an elaborate, years-long sting in which the FBI secretly ran a phone encryption program that officials say criminals unwittingly used to facilitate drug transactions worldwide.
ANOM, the FBI’s encrypted device company, was used by more than 300 criminal organizations in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Europe that unknowingly communicated about narcotics shipments and exchanged incriminating pictures, including ones showing cocaine hidden in food shipments, according to the Justice Department.
Eight hundred have been arrested from around the world. Several tons of marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine have been seized, as well as different currencies totaling $48 million, officials said.
“This was an unprecedented operation in terms of its massive scale, innovative strategy and technological and investigative achievement,” Randy Grossman, acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of California, said Tuesday when officials announced the unsealing of federal indictments in San Diego. “Hardened encrypted devices usually provide an impenetrable shield against law enforcement surveillance and detection. The supreme irony here is that the very devices that these criminals were using to hide from law enforcement were actually beacons of law enforcement.”
Seventeen foreign nationals are facing racketeering conspiracy charges that carry up to 20 years in prison.
The investigation, dubbed Operation Trojan Shield, began after the FBI dismantled a Canadian encryption device company in 2018 and forced criminals to find other ways to communicate. The FBI and the Australian Police Force created ANOM, which officials said was similar to the blind carbon copy email function. Every text message, photo, and audio sent through the platform – more than 27 million in all – was collected and stored in a server and reviewed by the FBI.
Officials said demand for ANOM grew in 2020 and 2021 following the dismantling of other encryption companies used by criminals.
The subject of encryption has been a controversial issue for law enforcement officials, technology companies and privacy advocates.
For instance, the Justice Department and Apple had been in a tug of war over whether the tech giant should help investigators by unlocking iPhones used by suspects in high-profile shootings. Last year, Apple refused to create a backdoor that would allow investigators to bypass the encryption features in the phones belonging to the shooter who killed three people at a Navy base in Pensacola, Florida.