The decryption of communications between criminals, who had unwittingly used telephones distributed by the FBI, led to the arrest of more than 800 people around the world, the seizure of several million euros and several tons of drugs.
A film script couldn’t have done better. The FBI, the European police agency Europol and several countries, including Australia, revealed Tuesday, June 8, that thousands of phones supposed to allow criminals to go unnoticed to organize their trafficking in drugs, weapons or even assassinations had been disseminated in the ranks of the Mafia, Asian organized crime unions, drug cartels, or even outlaw motorcycle gangs. In total, more than 800 people were arrested in a massive international crackdown.
Franceinfo explains how this ingenious operation, called Trojan Shield, was set up.
A former drug importer behind the scheme
Details of the operation are in an FBI affidavit filed in U.S. court on May 17, 2021, reports The Guardian (article in English). According to the British daily, which was able to consult this document, it all started in mid-2018, when an importer of drugs condemned met FBI agents in San Diego (California, United States) and made them a tempting offer: in exchange for a possible reduction in sentence, would the office like to benefit from a backdoor in encrypted communications? a large network of organized criminal groups?
This informant is none other than a ex-distributor of Phantom Secure, completes the New York Times (article in English). This old encrypted communications system in the organized crime community had been dismantled a few months earlier, in March 2018, leaving a vacuum on this market and on the possibilities of infiltration.
In the meantime, this informant had developed a new system called ANoM. According to New York Times and the Guardian, he agreed to let the FBI control this ANoM network in exchange for a sum of 180,000 dollars (148,000 euros) and began, in October 2018, by offering the devices to three other distributors with links to organized crime in Australia. This is the first time that authorities have controlled an entire encrypted network from its creation, specifies the American daily. “The FBI played the CIA: they created the messaging system themselves and put the cellphones in the pockets of the gangsters. In addition, they carried out an influence operation to deter the competitors.”, observes on franceinfo Fabrice Rizzoli, doctor in political science from the University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne. Rumors have indeed been launched about the alleged vulnerability of a competing system called Ciphr.
Phones equipped with personalized encryption software
This ANoM device is a modified mobile phone, devoid of any element that could be used to enter communications (emails, calls, GPS services …) and equipped with custom encryption software, which theoretically makes it much more secure than anything on the market. Her Only functional application was disguised as a calculator: after entering a code, users could send messages and photos with end-to-end encryption. This “secret code, via a small software, made it possible to reinforce in the minds of the criminals that it was about an ultra armored tool “, analysis on franceinfo journalist Damien Bancal, specialized in cybersecurity.
The FBI and Australian police began by disseminating 50 phones, mostly in Australia, relying on people with influence in the community – including a drug lord on the loose in Turkey. These devices could only be bought on the black market, for around 2,000 dollars (1,600 euros), and the famous secret code had to be transmitted by another ANoM user. “A criminal had to know another criminal to get this material”Australian police said in a statement.
“The devices circulated and their popularity grew among criminals, who had confidence in the legitimacy of the application because prominent figures in organized crime vouched for its integrity.”Australian police
in a press release
“In the end, they handcuffed each other by adopting and trusting ANoM and communicating openly with it, not knowing that we were watching them all the time.”Australian Police Chief Reece Kershaw said in the statement.
Over 27 million messages intercepted in 18 months
A total of 11,800 devices have been sold to more than 300 crime syndicates operating in more than 100 countries, according to Europol (in English), partner of the operation. The countries that received the most are Australia, Spain, Germany and the Netherlands. During eighteen months, 27 million messages were intercepted and examined. In their content, for example, we find discussions between two Australian drug traffickers sharing photos of hundreds of kilograms of cocaine in packaging bearing the Batman logo.
With ANoM cell phones, criminals organized the shipment of cocaine concealed in tins of tuna, in a container, from Ecuador to Belgium, quotes the New York Times. Cocaine was also trafficked in sealed French diplomatic envelopes from Bogota (Colombia), the newspaper added.
Examining the messages thwarted 21 murder plots, including one to use a machine gun in a cafe, detailed the Australian Chief of Police. He also updated “numerous high profile public corruption cases in several countries”, revealed Reece Kershaw, signaling that sensitive information was transmitted to criminals by corrupt law enforcement officials.
Eight hundred arrests around the world with more to come
What precipitated the end of the operation? According to AFP, this infiltration was visibly shattered in March 2021, when a blogger revealed in detail the security flaws of ANoM, presented as a device linked to Australia, the United States and other members of the intelligence alliance of the FiveEyes. This post has since been deleted.
Still, the operations carried out in recent days in 16 countries have made it possible, according to Europol, to search 700 houses, seize several tons of drugs (mainly cocaine), 250 firearms, 55 luxury vehicles and 48 million dollars in several currencies and cryptocurrencies and to call 800 people. “Countless derivative operations will be carried out in the coming weeks”, specifies the European organization.
“The results are astounding”, Jean-Philippe Lecouffe, deputy director of operations at Europol, rejoiced Tuesday at a press conference in The Hague (Netherlands). In Australia alone, 224 people have been charged with a total of more than 500 charges, six drug manufacturing laboratories have been closed, quantities of weapons and A $ 45 million (€ 29 million ) in cash were seized. New Zealand police, who reported 35 arrests, described the operation as “the most sophisticated in the world against organized crime that has been carried out by law enforcement to date”.