Global sting began by creating message service for crooks

  • Acting U.S Attorney Randy Grossman, right, speaks as law enforcement officials look on during a news conference announcing Operation Trojan shield Tuesday in San Diego. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)

SAN DIEGO — 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.

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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.

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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.”

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