June 12, 2021

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The FBI Secretly Ran the Anom Messaging Platform, Yielding Hundreds of Arrests in Global Sting – The Wall Street Journal

5 min read

In a series of coordinated raids around the world, police agencies rounded up hundreds of suspected members of crime networks who had forged their plans on an encrypted communications platform secretly run by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

In the wide-ranging sting operation dubbed “Operation Trojan Shield,” an international coalition of law-enforcement agencies led by the FBI secretly ran the encrypted communications platform Anom. Hundreds of alleged members of international criminal organizations adopted the platform as a means to communicate securely, unaware that authorities were using their covert access to monitor 27 million messages from more than 12,000 users across more than 100 countries, officials said.

The sting was revealed this week in a series of news conferences by authorities in the U.S., Europe, Australia and New Zealand. The operation is the latest foray in a global law-enforcement campaign against the abuse of encrypted platforms, which authorities say provide a haven for illicit activity beyond the reach of government monitoring.

“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 since 2018 been involved in running Anom, which makes and distributes secure, encrypted mobile devices that have grown popular among criminals in recent years.

The sting involved more than 9,000 law-enforcement offices around the world who searched 700 locations in the last 48 hours alone, the FBI said on Tuesday.

Europol, the European police agency, said 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.

The FBI charged 17 foreign nationals operating in places including Australia, the Netherlands, and Spain with distributing encrypted Anom communications devices, saying they violated the 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.

Similar devices were once sold on the open market. But after the takedown of an executive at the company Phantom Secure, the distribution of mobile devices meant to evade law-enforcement access has increasingly moved underground.

The FBI developed a confidential human source involved in the development of Anom and used that access to make, market and distribute the devices around the world, according to an affidavit unsealed in U.S. federal court this week.

The FBI, in conjunction with law-enforcement partners, secretly built into Anom the ability to covertly intercept and decrypt the messages being sent through the service’s system. In court filings, the bureau detailed extensive conversations about narcotics trafficking, cryptocurrency transactions, cash smuggling, corruption and other illicit activity flowing through Anom’s systems.

Europol said Anom was used by more than 300 criminal groups in more than 100 countries, including Italian organized crime, outlaw motorcycle gangs and international drug-trafficking organizations.

Information from the platform had allowed police to prevent more than 100 potential killings, said Calvin Shivers, assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division, at a news conference at Europol headquarters in The Hague.

The messages gave law-enforcement officials detailed insight into the activities of criminal gangs, Mr. Shivers said, including photographs of hundreds of tons of cocaine concealed in shipments of fruit and canned goods.

“Crime continues to traverse international boundaries, and so law enforcement must do the same,” he said.

Narcotics smugglers in South America allegedly used a banana distributor and an Ecuadorean tuna company, for example, to smuggle narcotics to Asia and Europe—in part by bribing port officials, U.S. authorities said in court documents. Belgian authorities seized 1,523 kilograms of cocaine bound for Antwerp based on leads from monitoring Anom messaging. Hollowed-out pineapples and refrigerated fish were also used to conceal contraband, authorities said.

One user boasted about his ability to move drugs internationally using French diplomatic pouches—the envelopes or packages that diplomats are authorized to bring in and out of foreign countries without being searched under the rules of international diplomacy—according to U.S. court documents.

Australian Federal Police detained a suspect in the global sting operation built off monitoring of the communications platform Anom.

Photo: australian federal police/Reuters

The international coalition of law-enforcement agencies involved in the effort—with Australia, Sweden and the Netherlands in leading roles—highlights the response to the increasingly global trade in illegal drugs in recent years. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has said Europe may have surpassed the U.S. as the world’s largest market for cocaine.

In addition, the sting operation marks the latest development in a global battle over encryption, privacy and security. People around the world have increasingly moved 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 the kind of devices used by some criminal gangs can go a step further. They include handsets with subscriptions costing thousands of dollars each that have a single application for covert communication installed and regular smartphone elements such as GPS removed.

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 CEO 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.

Write to Byron Tau at byron.tau@wsj.com and James Marson at james.marson@wsj.com

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