By Aara Ramesh
In what is being called the “largest and most sophisticated” operation ever against encrypted criminal activities, Europol, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and law enforcement agencies in 16 countries across the world have managed to take down hundreds of criminals and organized crime syndicates, officials said on Tuesday, June 8.
Stunning reports from all over the globe detail the activities of the nearly three-year-long “OTF Greenlight/Trojan Shield,” which persuaded criminals to use an encrypted device and technology developed by the Australian Federal Police (AFP) to communicate and plan crimes over messages that were simultaneously being copied to the FBI.
The coordinated takedowns over the last few days involved over 9,000 officers from agencies such as the FBI, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Authority, Europol, the AFP, the Dutch National Police and the Swedish Police Authority, among others. The operation resulted in:
- More than 700 house searches
- Over 800 arrests
- The seizure of vast quantities of narcotics, including more than 8 tons of cocaine; 22 tons of cannabis and cannabis resin; 2 tons of synthetic drugs (amphetamine and methamphetamine) and 6 tons of synthetic drugs precursors
- The dismantling of 50 clandestine drug labs, including one of the biggest in German history
- 250 firearms being confiscated
- Over 100 threats to lives being foiled
- 55 luxury vehicles being impounded, and
- The recovery of over $48 million in various currencies and cryptocurrencies.
It also yielded a treasure trove of evidence and intelligence that will help authorities all over the world in the weeks and years to come.
The operation resulted from a need to innovate in order to seriously impact the most sophisticated and active crime organizations in the world. The AFP began developing the encrypted device company and service called “Anom” in about 2018. They then provided the technology to the FBI, who used it to exploit the substantial demand that exists for platforms where criminals can securely communicate without being monitored by law enforcement or private companies.
According to FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division Assistant Director Calvin A. Shivers, “Encrypted criminal communications platforms have traditionally been a tool to evade law enforcement and facilitate transnational organized crime.”
However, the market is quite volatile, which has allowed authorities to successfully infiltrate and dismantle various platforms. In July 2020, Operational Taskforce EMMA (run by France and the Netherlands) took down the EncroChat platform. And earlier this year, in March, Operational Task Force Limit (coordinated by Belgium, France and the Netherlands) took down the Sky ECC communication service tool.
The latter, in particular, sent transnational organizations scrambling to find a replacement, which allowed OTF Greenlight/Trojan Shield to attract new users to the Anom platform, playing right into the FBI’s hands.
The FBI sold over 12,000 of these encrypted devices (sometimes costing up to $2,000) and services to over 300 criminal syndicates in more than 100 countries. “Hardened” encryption devices are usually sold only through “word-of-mouth” networks within criminal circles. Thus, to proliferate the device, the FBI had to infiltrate these trusted networks and present the device as reliable and helpful.
Anom was promoted within criminal networks as being a completely secure way to send “encrypted messages in a closed digital environment,” with the guarantee that the device would be wiped remotely if the police managed to seize one.
Over the last 18 months, the FBI has been copied on every single message sent through Anom. Agents have combed through, recorded and translated over 27 million text messages, photos, audio messages and other pieces of digital information shared on Anom. Some officials expressed surprise at how forthcoming and open criminals were about their activities on the platform they were sure was safe.
The conversations included included intricate details about how to generally evade law enforcement; the cost of services; methods of concealing drugs (such as hiding them in pineapples, bananas and tuna cans); instructions on how to smuggle drugs and firearms; snapshots of shipments; details on how to go about money laundering; and plans to commit acts of violence and even murders.
The FBI then shared this intelligence with the international community. After months of surveillance, the coordinated raids and attacks commenced a few days ago. After sweeping through Australia and Europe, the operation finally concluded on Tuesday in San Diego, where officials unsealed the grand jury indictment of 17 foreign nationals who had allegedly participated in disseminating thousands of the Anom devices to their criminal associates.
Authorities are hoping that criminals will now think twice before using encrypted communications to conduct their illicit activities, armed as they are with the knowledge that the FBI might be looking over their shoulders.
Once the operation was complete, Anom was taken down by the FBI yesterday.