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800 criminals who used FBI-operated messaging app arrested in massive sting operation

US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), in coordination with Australian Federal Police (AFP), ran a string operation by secretly operating an encrypted messaging app called Anom used by organized crime, leading to the arrest of around 800 suspects, a press release by Europol stated. The operation was revealed this week in a series of news conferences by law enforcement authorities in the US, Australia, Europe, and New Zealand. This “is one of the largest and most sophisticated law enforcement operations to date in the fight against encrypted criminal activities,” Europol stated.

Origins of the operation

The seeds for this operation, known as Operation Ironside/Greenlight/Trojan Shield, were planted in 2018 when the FBI cracked down on Phantom Secure, a company that provided encrypted messaging devices to organized criminals. These devices are secure smartphones that are configured to run only an encrypted messaging app and nothing else.

Following this crackdown, an unnamed informant who previously sold Phantom devices and was developing another encrypted device called Anom (Anøm) offered the device to the FBI to use in ongoing and new investigations in return for a reduced prison sentence, Vice reported based on court documents. Criminals leaving Phantom started using other encrypted devices include Anom phones, the report added.

“Encrypted criminal communications platforms have traditionally been a tool to evade law enforcement and facilitate transnational organized crime. The FBI and our international partners continue to push the envelope and develop innovative ways to overcome these challenges and bring criminals to justice.” – Calvin Shivers, Assistant Director, Criminal Investigative Division, US Federal Bureau of Investigation

How was the operation carried out?

The FBI and other law enforcement agencies secretly started distributing Anom phones to suspected crime syndicates involved in drug and weapon trafficking, contract killing, and money laundering. The informant’s existing distribution network was also used for this purpose. Anom’s popularity grew over time and it surged when law enforcement agencies dismantled EncroChat in July 2020 and Sky Global in 2021, two other companies that provided encrypted messaging services.

Eventually, “more than 12 000 encrypted devices to over 300 criminal syndicates operating in more than 100 countries, including Italian organised crime, outlaw motorcycle gangs, and international drug trafficking organisations.” These phones secretly siphoned 27 million messages between 2019 and 2021.

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Unbeknownst to buyers, all messages exchanged since October 2018 were available to the FBI and the agency possessed a “master key” that allowed it to decrypt the contents of the messages exchanged using the Anom device. Although the FBI decrypted the messages, it was the Australian police that reviewed these messages and passed on information to the FBI due to jurisdiction issues. Messages that were exchanged include photos of cocaine packages and conversations about how to smuggle shipments of drugs. “All they talk about is drugs, violence, hits on each other, innocent people who are going to be murdered, a whole range of things,” said Australian Federal Police commissioner Reece Kershaw.

The aftermath

  • 700 house searches
  • 800 suspects arrested
  • 8 tons of cocaine seized
  • 2 tons of synthetic drugs (amphetamine and methamphetamine) seized
  • 22 tons of cannabis and cannabis resin seized
  • 250 firearms seized
  • 55 luxury vehicles seized
  • $48 million in various worldwide currencies and cryptocurrencies seized

Europol also stated that “countless spin-off operations will be carried out in the weeks to come” and the information gathered from Operation Trojan Shield will “enhance the intelligence picture on organised crime.”

According to BBC, Swedish police said that the operation helped to prevent more than 10 planned murders in the country and Australian police said it acted on 20 “threats to kill”.

Law enforcement agencies from 16 countries involved in the ops

According to the Europol press release, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Australian Federal Police (AFP), Dutch National Police, the Swedish Police Authority, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and law enforcement agencies from 16 countries carried out the operation with the support of Europol. These countries include Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Lithuania, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, the United Kingdom incl. Scotland, and the United States. In total, over 9000 police officers are said to be involved in this operation.

“Operation Trojan Shield is a fine example of innovative and daring police work that is unparalleled. Each partner provided its own unique expertise and together we delivered a fantastic international performance.  Just like the investigations into EncroChat and Sky, Operation Trojan Shield also shows that serious criminals wrongly believe that they can operate anonymously and out of sight of the police and that they cannot be caught. Nothing turns out to be less true.” – Jannine van den Berg, Chief Constable of the Netherlands Police’s Central Unit

What does this mean for India?

Although there is currently no evidence that Indian law enforcement agencies participated in this operation or if criminals on Indian soil were targetted, there are other salient implications of this operation.

The recent sting operation shows that criminals are more likely to use dedicated devices and services that do not fall under the purview of the traceability mandate of the new IT Rules 2021.

The rules say that large messaging platforms like WhatsApp have to enable tracing of the originator of a message. The government argues that this will help it better fight crime and prevent illegal activities such as those that were targeted by this operation.

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