MELBOURNE, Australia – Mobile phones, purchased on the black market, perform a unique function hidden behind a computer application: send encrypted messages and photos.
For years, organized crime actors around the globe have relied on these devices to coordinate international drug shipments, coordinate the arms and explosives trade, and discuss murders. under the contract, law enforcement officials said. Users trust the device’s security so much that they often outline their plans not in code but in plain language, referring to specific smugglers and drop-off points.
Unbeknownst to them, however, the entire network is actually a sophisticated outlet run by the FBI in collaboration with Australian police.
On Tuesday, global law enforcement officials revealed the unprecedented scope of the three-year operation, saying they had intercepted more than 20 million messages in 45 languages and arrested at least 800 people, most of them in the last two days, in more than a dozen countries. Using these messages, US court papers say, authorities opened a series of international investigations into drug trafficking, money laundering and “high-level public corruption.” .
The operation, code-named Trojan Shield, represents a breakthrough for law enforcement, which has in recent years struggled to break into criminals’ increasingly secret communications. . Although authorities have cracked or shut down encrypted platforms in the past – such as one called EncroChat that police in Europe have successfully hacked – this is the first known case. came in which officials controlled an entire encrypted network from its inception.
Europol, the European police agency, describes the effort as “one of the largest and most sophisticated law enforcement operations to date in the fight against encrypted criminal activities”.
“A multitude of spin-off activities will be carried out in the coming weeks,” Europol said in a statement. US law enforcement officials announced further arrests in an unsealed federal fraud indictment on Tuesday.
In Australia, the effort has arrested national and international organized crime groups and outlawed motorcycle gangs, with more than 200 people arrested, officials said. In Sweden, police arrested 155 people on suspicion of serious crimes and prevented the killing of 10 people, authorities said in a statement. The operation also targeted Italian organized crime and international drug trafficking syndicates, and hundreds more were arrested in Europe.
Reece Kershaw, commissioner of the Australian Federal Police, said on Tuesday: “We have been in the back pocket of organized crime.
The FBI’s activity, according to court documents unsealed by the Justice Department on Monday, dates back to early 2018 after the agency destroyed a Canada-based encryption service called Phantom. Secure. The company, officials said, provided encrypted cell phones to drug cartels, such as Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel and other criminal groups.
Seeing a gap in the underground market, the FBI recruited a former distributor of Phantom Secure who was developing a new encrypted communication system called Anom. The informant agreed to work for the FBI and let the agency take control of the network in order to potentially have a reduced prison sentence, according to court documents. The documents say the FBI paid the informant $120,000.
An Anom device is a mobile phone that has been stripped of all normal functions. Their only working application is disguised as a computer function: After entering the code, the user can send messages and photos using end-to-end encryption.
Over three years, more than 12,000 Anom devices were sold to more than 300 criminal organizations operating in more than 100 countries, according to Europol. The devices are priced differently by location but are typically sold, according to court papers, on six-month subscriptions available for $1,700 in the United States.
Working with Australian authorities, the FBI and informants developed a “master key” that allowed them to reroute messages to a third country and decrypt them, ultimately intercepting more than 27 million messages.
Authorities also rely on informants to get devices into extremist criminal networks. The informant began in October 2018 by supplying equipment to three other distributors with links to organized crime in Australia.
A major turning point came when they were able to get one of these devices into the hands of Joseph Hakan Ayik, an Australian who fled the country a decade ago and who, law enforcement officials said. Police believe they have directed the import of drugs from Turkey. Mr Ayik was named the leading defendant in the unsealed fraud indictment in San Diego along with 16 others from Australia, Finland, Sweden, Colombia, the UK and the Netherlands.
Jean-Philippe Lecouffe, Europol’s deputy chief executive, said the operation gave law enforcement “an exceptional view of the criminal landscape”.
Via encrypted cell phones, the criminals organized the transportation of cocaine from Ecuador to Belgium in a container hidden inside a can of tuna, according to US court documents. Cocaine is also trafficked in French diplomatically sealed envelopes out of Bogotá, the Colombian capital.
Australian authorities admit that Anom conducts only a small percentage of the total volume of encrypted communications sent by criminal networks. But as recently as this spring, US federal authorities sought to increase its market share. In March, for example, prosecutors in San Diego indicted the leaders of one of Anom’s main competitors, Sky Global, “directing their customer base” toward Anom, a FBI officials said Tuesday.
Anom also has a built-in advantage: The people running it can listen – directly to – the target audience and give the user what they want.
After users talked about wanting the newer, smaller phones, the authorities started offering them.
Australian officials said they disclosed the operation on Tuesday because of the need to disrupt the dangerous plots currently being worked on and because of the limited time frame for legal authorities invoked to block links. lost.
Suzanne Turner, special agent in charge of the FBI’s San Diego office, said investigators have also pulled the plug on the Anom network because their eavesdropping rights are about to be renewed and crooks have gathered so much evidence. proof.
Trojan Shield is reminiscent of a much smaller FBI sting – Operation Jack Server – that the bureau began more than a decade ago against the one-time leader of the Sinaloa drug cartel, Joaquin Guzman Loera, known came to be called El Chapo. In that operation, agents recruited Mr. Guzman’s personal IT staff to help them infiltrate the cartel network of the first generation of encrypted telephones.
The Anom website has previously displayed slick graphics and slick videos reminiscent of Apple ads. On Tuesday, it made a new announcement: Users who want to “discuss how your account is linked to an ongoing investigation” can enter their account details.
Europol said that in addition to 800 arrests, including several by law enforcement officers, operations conducted over the past days in 16 countries resulted in the search of 700 homes, the seizure of tons of drugs drugs, 250 guns, 55 luxury cars and 48 dollars. millions in several currencies and cryptocurrencies.
Yan Zhuang reported from Melbourne, Australia, and Elian Peltier from London. Christina Anderson contributed reporting from Stockholm.