FBI Secretly Ran an Encrypted Messaging App to Catch Criminals

Over 12,000 encrypted devices were closely monitored by law enforcement officials over the span of a few years.
Fabienne Lang

More than 800 suspected criminals around the world were arrested this week as part of a global law enforcement operation called Operation Trojan Shield/Greenlight.

Since 2019, global law enforcement officials, including the FBI, had closely monitored messages between criminal gangs that were being sent through the encrypted messaging app: ANOM. None of the criminals were aware they were being tricked, and that their messages were being copied and looked over by the FBI, reported Europol, who was also part of the operation.

All in all, over 12,000 encrypted devices of more than 300 organized criminal gangs in over 100 countries were monitored. The goal of using the ANOM platform was to gain access to global organized crime, drug trafficking, and money laundering organizations.

Drugs, weapons, luxury vehicles, and cash were also seized during the arrests, reported the BBC.

These criminals were secretly offered an encrypted device, said Europol, that would provide them with certain features they typically look for, such as remote wiping, and duress passwords. Hundreds took the bait and used the encrypted devices to send "secret" messages.

In the end, over 25 million messages were closely eyed by law authorities working on the case, which lead them to the arrests.

This operation marks one of the world's most sophisticated law enforcement operations linked to encrypted criminal activities. 

How did the encrypted devices work?

Police and law enforcement are using smartphone cracking tools, and encrypted devices to track down suspected criminals around the world — and given the technological turn our culture is taking, it's easy to see why. 

The modified devices the Trojan Shield/Greenlight operation used only supported communications through an ANOM messaging app, reported The New York Times. The messaging app could only be accessed after inputting a password.

Specialized encrypted phones are less common than regular encrypted communication platforms like WhatsApp. Only the sender and the recipient of the message can read it, which means more confidential information can be shared. The suspected criminals could discuss all of their illegal operations thinking they were far away from prying eyes — the opposite was true. 

Officials reportedly took hold of a communications firm called Phantom Secure that developed similar encrypted devices for criminal activity, reported The Fast CompanyThey struck a deal whereby a Phantom Secure developer received a lesser sentence for cooperating with the FBI and helped officials by developing ANOM. 

Spreading by word of mouth, approximately 12,000 ANOM encrypted devices were quickly distributed around the world, which enabled law enforcement officials around the world to keep track of global criminal gang activities since 2019.

"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," said the FBI's Criminal Investigative Division Assistant Director Calvin A. Shivers.

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