When the FBI dismantled an encrypted messaging service based in Canada in 2018, agents spotted users moving to other networks. Instead of following in the footsteps of rivals, investigators decided on a new tactic: creating their own service.
ANOM, a secure communications service set up by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies, launched in October 2019 and solidified its studies after authorities ousted another rival. Popularity is spreading by word of mouth.
When the ANOM was taken down on Monday, authorities had collected more than 27 million messages from about 12,000 devices in 45 languages - a vast amount of evidence that fuels a global sting operation. Authorities unveiled an operation known as the Trojan Shield on Tuesday and said they had struck an “unprecedented blow”
“Each device in this case was used for further criminal activity,” said Susanne Turner, the FBI’s agent in San Diego, where the investigation began in 2016. The users were “top echelon, command and control.” of 300 criminal organizations.
Unknown to the criminals, authorities copied every message sent to FBI devices, like blind email recipients.
“The very devices that criminals use to cover up their crimes were actually a beacon for law enforcement,” said Randy Grossman, a U.S. lawyer in San Diego, at a news conference.
More than 800 suspects were arrested and more than 32 tonnes of drugs were seized, including cocaine, cannabis, amphetamines and methamphetamines. Police also confiscated 250 pistols, 55 luxury cars and more than $ 148 million in cash and cryptocurrencies. An indictment printed Tuesday in San Diego named 17 foreign distributors accused of conspiracy to racketeer.
The seeds of the sting were sown when law enforcement removed a company called Phantom Secure, which provides personalized end-to-end encrypted devices to criminals, according to court documents.
Unlike typical mobile phones, the devices do not make phone calls or surf the Internet, but allow secure messaging. As a result of the operation, the FBI hired an associate to develop a next-generation secure communications platform for the underworld called ANOM. The staff member set up the system to give the agency access to all messages sent.
ANOM did not take off immediately. But then other protected platforms used by criminals to organize hits on drug trafficking and money laundering were taken down by police, mainly EncroChat and Sky ECC. This put gangs on the market for a new app and the FBI platform was ready. For the past 18 months, the agency has provided telephones through unsuspecting gang brokers in more than 100 countries.
The flow of intelligence “allowed us to prevent murders. This led to the seizure of drugs, which led to the seizure of weapons. And it helped prevent a number of crimes, “said Calvin Shivers, assistant director of the FBI’s criminal investigation department, at a news conference in The Hague, the Netherlands.
The operation was led by the FBI, involving the US Drug Enforcement Administration, the European Union’s police agency Europol and law enforcement agencies in several countries, said Dutch National Police Chief Janin van den Berg.
Australian Federal Police Commander Jennifer Hearst called it a “turning point in world law enforcement history”.
The ANOM app became popular in criminal circles as users told each other it was a secure platform. All the while, the police stared over their shoulders as they discussed hits, drug deliveries, and other crimes.
As of October 2019, the FBI has cataloged more than 20 million messages from a total of 11,800 devices – with about 9,000 currently active, according to documents that list Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Australia and Serbia as the most active countries.
They say the number of active ANOM users was only 3,000, while Sky, one of the platforms previously used by criminal gangs, was dismantled in March.
Although it focused mainly on drug trafficking and money laundering, the investigation also led to “high-level public corruption cases,” an FBI agent was quoted as saying. The purpose of the Trojan Shield was to “shake the confidence of this entire industry because the FBI has the desire and ability to enter this space and monitor communications,” the agent said.
Swedish police have prevented a dozen planned killings and believe they have arrested several “leading players in criminal networks,” according to a statement from Linda Staaf, head of Sweden’s national criminal intelligence unit.
Finnish police said on Tuesday that nearly 100 people had been detained and more than 500 kilograms (half a tonne) of drugs seized, along with dozens of weapons and cash worth hundreds of thousands of euros (dollars). In Germany, the Frankfurt Prosecutor General’s Office said more than 70 people were arrested on Monday, and drugs, money and weapons were also seized.
In Australia, authorities said they had arrested 224 people and seized more than four tonnes of drugs and $ 35 million. New Zealand police say they have arrested 35 people and seized millions of dollars worth of drugs and assets.
As part of a global operation, the Australian government has “dealt a heavy blow against organized crime,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters. “Not only in this country, but also the one that will resonate around organized crime around the world.”
Last year, European police dealt a severe blow to organized crime after they broke an encrypted communications network known as EncroChat, which was used by criminal gangs across the continent.
In March, Belgian police arrested dozens of people after breaking into another encrypted chat system and seizing more than 17 tonnes of cocaine.
Recent efforts have gone even further before authorities decided to abolish the service.
The operation is likely to make criminals wonder if the services they use are run by government, Turner said, showing that the authorities have a wealth of technical knowledge and international co-operation.
Nick Merrill, a cybersecurity researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, said the investigation offered a “pretty good recipe” for law enforcement to compromise an existing service or build it and wait for “the right time to strike.”
“Either way, these centralized services provide a central point of weakness,” Meryl said.
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