Unprecedented FBI Operation Let Criminal Entities Out Themselves

Law enforcement officials introduced encryption software as a trojan horse into the international drug trade, netting access to more than 20 million messages in at least three dozen languages.

Proceeds of a police raid known as Operation Trojan Shield in the United States and Operation Ironside in Australia. (Australian Federal Police via Courthouse News)

WASHINGTON (CN) — It began with the release in 2018 of a new encryption service called Anom, touted as having been built “by criminals, for criminals.”

“But the devices were actually operated by the FBI,” acting U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman for the the Southern District of California said in a press conference Tuesday, as his office charged 17 foreign nationals as part of a global law enforcement initiative called Operation Trojan Shield that led to the arrests this morning of at least 800 people.

With a sticker price in the United States of about $1,700 for a six-month subscription, court papers show, the service drew drug traffickers in droves. Over the next three years, Grossman underscored, some 300 criminal syndicates operating in more than 100 countries bought in excess of 12,000 Anom devices.

Once the devices made their way into the black market, law enforcement copied every message sent through them as evidence of criminal behavior.  

The prosecutor called the investigation out of San Diego “like none other in history,” one that, as special agent Nicholas Cheviron explained in an affidavit, allowed the FBI and Europol, the European Union’s central law enforcement agency, to penetrate the ranks of “Italian organized crime, Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, and various international narcotics source, transportation, and distribution cells.”

Authorities hatched the idea for Operation Trojan Shield after the FBI broke up a Canada-based encryption service called Phantom Secure in 2018, sending its approximately 20,000 users, most of whom were leaders of transnational criminal organizations, in search of other platforms like Sky Global and EncroChat. 

By introducing them to Anom, law enforcement officials were able to monitor 27 million incrimination messages in less than 18 months. Grand totals from around the world suggest at least 800 arrests, at least 500 of which occurred in the 24 hours since the service was taken offline Monday, Grossman said. Around the world, the operation has led to more than 700 home searches.  

An individual arrested as part of a police raid known as Operation Trojan Shield in the United States and Operation Ironside in Australia. (Australian Federal Police via Courthouse News)

Authorities have also seized 8 tons of cocaine, 22 tons of marijuana, 2 tons of methamphetamine, 6 tons of drug precursors, 250 firearms and more than $48 million in different currencies. 

“This was an unprecedented operation in terms of its massive scale, innovative strategy, international coordination and investigative achievement,” Grossman said. “Operation Trojan Shield has shattered any confidence criminals may have through the use of hardened encrypted devices.” 

The sting is a welcome cybersecurity win for U.S. law enforcement officials, building off Monday’s recovery of $2.3 million paid to the cybercrime group whose ransomware attack on Colonial Pipeline last month caused a nationwide gas shortage. The Colonial Pipeline hack was one of several major cyberattacks over the past few weeks that have left governments and businesses around the world reeling.

Suzanne Turner, special agent in charge of the FBI’s San Diego office, noted at Tuesday’s press conference that encryption is a double-edged sword, helping to keep Americans safe but one that also allows criminals to hide “their communications in a cloak of secrecy.”  

“Enabling criminals to operate behind a digital shield inhibits law enforcement’s ability to prevent and detect crime before it happens,” she said. 

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