Suzanne Turner, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI, speaks at a news conference announcing Operation Trojan shield, Tuesday, June 8, 2021, in San Diego. The global sting operation involved an encrypted communications platform developed by the FBI and sparked a series of raids and arrests around the world in which more than 800 suspects were arrested and more than 32 tons of drugs — cocaine, cannabis, amphetamines and methamphetamines were seized. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)
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By Mike Corder, Nick Perry and Elliot Spagat, AP

When the FBI dismantled an encrypted messaging service based in Canada in 2018, agents noticed users moving to other networks. Instead of following their tracks to rivals, investigators decided on a new tactic: creating their own service.

ANOM, a secure-messaging service built by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies, launched in October 2019 and solidified its following after authorities took down another rival. Popularity spread by word of mouth.

When ANOM was taken down Monday, authorities had collected more than 27 million messages from about 12,000 devices in 45 languages — a vast body of evidence that fueled a global sting operation. Authorities on Tuesday revealed the operation known as Trojan Shield and announced that it had dealt an “unprecedented blow” to organized crime around the world.

“Each and every device in this case was used to further criminal activity,” said Suzanne Turner, the agent in charge of the FBI in San Diego, where the investigation began in 2016. Users were “upper-echelon, command-and-control” figures in more than 300 criminal organizations.

Unbeknown to criminals, authorities were copied on every message sent on the FBI devices, much like blind recipients of an email.

“The very devices that criminals use to hide their crimes were actually a beacon for law enforcement,” Randy Grossman, the acting U.S. attorney in San Diego, said at a news conference.

More than 800 suspects were arrested and more than 32 tons of drugs seized, including cocaine, cannabis, amphetamines and methamphetamines. Police also seized 250 guns, 55 luxury cars and more than $148 million in cash and cryptocurrencies. An indictment unsealed Tuesday in San Diego named 17 foreign distributors charged with racketeering conspiracy.

The seeds of the sting were sown when law enforcement agencies took down a company called Phantom Secure that provided customized end-to-end encrypted devices to criminals, according to court papers.

Unlike typical cellphones, the devices do not make phone calls or browse the internet — but allow for secure messaging. As an outgrowth of the operation, the FBI recruited a collaborator who was developing a next-generation secure-messaging platform for the criminal underworld called ANOM. The collaborator engineered the system to give the agency access to any messages being sent.

ANOM didn’t take off immediately. But then other secure platforms used by criminals to organize drug-trafficking hits and money laundering were taken down by police, chiefly EncroChat and Sky ECC. That put gangs in the market for a new app, and the FBI’s platform was ready. Over the past 18 months, the agency provided phones via unsuspecting middlemen to gangs in more than 100 countries.

The flow of intelligence “enabled us to prevent murders. It led to the seizure of drugs that led to the seizure of weapons. And it helped prevent a number of crimes,” Calvin Shivers, assistant director of the FBI’s criminal investigative division, told a news conference in The Hague, Netherlands.

The operation was led by the FBI with the involvement of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the European Union police agency Europol and law enforcement agencies in several countries, said Dutch National Police Chief Constable Jannine van den Berg.

Australian Federal Police Commander Jennifer Hearst called it “a watershed moment in global law enforcement history.”

The ANOM app became popular in criminal circles as users told one another it was a safe platform. All the time, police were looking over their shoulders as they discussed hits, drug shipments and other crimes.

Since October 2019, the FBI cataloged more than 20 million messages from a total of 11,800 devices — with about 9,000 currently active, according to documents, which cited Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Australia and Serbia as the most active countries.

They say the number of active ANOM users was only 3,000 until Sky, one of the platforms previously used by criminal gangs, was dismantled in March.

While primarily focused on drug trafficking and money-laundering, the investigation also resulted in “high-level public corruption cases,” an FBI agent quoted in the documents said. A goal of Trojan Shield was to “shake the confidence in this entire industry because the FBI is willing and able to enter this space and monitor messages,” the agent said.

Swedish police prevented a dozen planned killings and believe that they arrested several “leading actors in criminal networks,” according to a statement from Linda Staaf, the head of Sweden’s national criminal intelligence unit.

Finnish police said Tuesday that nearly 100 people have been detained and more than 500 kilograms (half a ton) of drugs confiscated, along with dozens of guns and cash worth hundreds of thousands of euros (dollars). In Germany, the general prosecutor’s office in Frankfurt said that more than 70 people were arrested Monday and drugs, cash and weapons were also seized.

In Australia, authorities said they arrested 224 people and seized more than four tons of drugs and $35 million. New Zealand police said they had arrested 35 people and seized drugs and assets worth millions of dollars.

As part of a global operation, the Australian government “struck a heavy blow against organized crime,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters. “Not just in this country, but one that will echo around organized crime around the world.”

European police last year delivered a major blow to organized crime after cracking 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 cracking another encrypted chat system and seizing more than 17 tons of cocaine.

The latest effort went even further before authorities decided to take down the service.

The operation will likely lead criminals to wonder whether services they use are run by a government, Turner said, and it has shown that authorities have abundant technical knowledge and international cooperation.

Nick Merrill, a cybersecurity researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, said the investigation offers “a pretty good recipe” for law enforcement agencies to compromise an existing service or build one and wait “for the right time to strike.”

“Either way, these centralized services provide a central point of weakness,” Merrill said.

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    • Other companies had been hawking encrypted coms…

    • Over a hundred guns were seized in AU alone.

      Wait until the crooks decide to clean house of those who recommended the AN0M app.

      • Southern
        According to radio news article yesterday they used the name of a “kingpin” they were hunting for. He has supposedly moved from Europe to Iraq as a safer location.

  1. But I’m sure they didn’t bait anybody into doing anything illegal. They would never do anything like that. Except that one time and then that other time and then all those other times. Come to think of it… Sure seems like a lot of people get ideas and illegal stuff from a certain feral agency. No bigs. Entrapment is a big word for your average government employee.

  2. Notice the lack of human trafficking arrests. Huge criminal bust and no human traffickers caught. Strange, isn’t it?

  3. I wonder how long before the feds request to see the IP address of anyone reading an article that makes them look bad… Before the article is written.

    • They tried to do that on USA today article about the FBI shootout in South Florida where 2 agents where killed.

      Remember, Big Brother is watching all the time.

    • Depends on the VPN who the owners are, and what country it’s located in. Most VPNs make it clear they are only psudoanon and still collect traffic logs, if only for a brief time. There is also no guarantee the feds aren’t snooping on the VPN servers so the company can maintain deniability. This is why you are supposed to protect your entry location despite using a VPN. A VPN isn’t a magical solution to sloppy PII, information leaks, and cross contamination (cross-login).

      A good VPN will not require email or credit card. They will generate an account number for you and allow for payment in cash and crypto; BTC and Monero and the usual two.

      People who need VPNs to stay safe, I.E Dissidents, civil rights activists, etc, should know better than to use the same public access point twice and the dos and don’ts of accessing the internet. The internet is convenience, if you need secure coms, there are other but less convenient ways.

  4. “High level public corruption cases…”
    So they’ve got the Clinton and Biden crime families then?

    • If they wanted to prosecute, but the swamp protects it’s own. So Democrat politicians will never be held to account and their followers can burn, loot, and murder.

  5. Lol…
    And yet they let Hillary walk away

    They either can’t or won’t see the forest through the trees. It’s pathetic.

    • Crime pays…for awhile anyway. I’m a Trump fan but he’s sleazy AF. If the feds “really” want you they’ll get you.

  6. Huge quantities of drugs, money, and weapons, but they didn’t bust a single ring human trafficking ring? Which is by far the fastest growing illicit industry in the world? Oh, and one that causes a level of human misery that absolutely dwarfs anything resulting from the drug or gun trade. How convenient, especially since large drugs busts where they seize cash and cars directly enrich the law enforcement community, whereas freeing horrifically enslaved migrant women who have no legal status and likely don’t speak the local language just creates more work and drains resources for all involved. Hmm, it’s almost like the “authorities” don’t give a single wet shit actually protecting people, despite their claims

    • Facebook also ignores human trafficking on it’s platforms. Don’t you dare say anything about Hunter Biden or point out the uselessness of face masks, though.

  7. If nothing else this is a good example of why it’s bad to trust your private communications to some random app.

    • Exactly. Nothing is totally secure, there are only levels of confidence. Encrypt your messages locally with PGP tools, then send them. It’s an extra step but it ensures that even if the platform is compromised, the messages still can’t be read.

  8. “Authorities on Tuesday revealed the operation known as Trojan Shield“

    Sounds like a porno…

    • I know, right? Didn’t James Clapper say so under oath? Now he works for CNN, and we all know they wouldn’t hire liars.

  9. To be all those who use encryption it’s the CIA and NSA spooks who developed it.

  10. If a private company did the EXACT same thing as the Federal Bureau of Idiots did, the FBI would be the first to denounce them and put them all in jail.

    The gov is totally out of control.

    And that is why, in their infinite wisdom and study of history, they declared our right to keep and bear arms without infringement, but even with that, we have infringement on a massive scale by a gov filled with traitors.

    As far as encryption, there are many easy methods to make it almost unbreakable.

    For example, I have a program that will encrypt the same information as many times as you want, and each time the result is completely different than the previous one, and yet can be decrypted with the original data intact. It does not need a key.

  11. I’ll never understand why people feel the need to do any of these crimes. It’s so pointless.

  12. Let’s talk in more detail about telecommunications and the services that such services provide to us. With great pleasure I will share the website with you, because today it is a top provider. IPRNs charge callers a flat fee per call or per minute

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