In May last year, two drug traffickers turned to an encrypted messaging platform called ANOM to track their latest effort: sending narcotics from Colombia to Hong Kong.
One, passing the Real G username, sent a photo of a wooden box full of packages of suspected cocaine, according to court documents. “I covered him with a layer of bananas,” Real G wrote, revealing his planned method of hiding the illegal substances from his peers.
But without knowing Real G and hundreds of criminals who until this week believed that ANOM was the best way to organize drug dealing, money laundering and murder away from the eyes of the authorities, the FBI has also been copied. secretly in every message.
In fact, in one of the most elaborate and widespread honey traps known to date, the entire communication platform was secretly managed by the FBI, marking a first for the agency.
The operation – dubbed Shield of Troy – shed light on the black market for confidentiality-oriented messaging platforms increasingly used by criminals, and demonstrated the lengths at which law enforcement will go to use their own technologies to recapture goals. .
“The ultimate irony here is that the same devices that these criminals were using to hide from law enforcement were actually beacons for law enforcement,” said U.S. attorney Randy Grossman. “Our goal is to shatter any confidence in the hardened encryption devices industry.”
The FBI has been associated with law enforcement in 17 countries in all as part of the operation. For these groups, Trojan Shield was an unprecedented coup, which resulted in about 800 arrests, and led to the seizure of $ 48 million in cash and cryptocurrencies and more than 32 tons of drugs. More than 100 assassination plots have also been exploited.
There may be more repercussions to come. The operation has also “initiated numerous cases of high-level public corruption in several countries,” according to an affidavit released this week.
“Digital sting tactics are proven and true,” said Ashkan Soltani, an independent privacy researcher and former chief technology officer of the Federal Trade Commission. “The amazing thing is the scale of the operation, in terms of the number of people and geographically.”
The idea of Operation Trojan Shield was conceived on the grounds between the Australian police and the FBI in 2018, officials say. Another similar encrypted messaging system, Phantom Secure, had been closed around that time, creating a new gap in the market.
The FBI then convicted an unnamed developer who had already begun building an encrypted platform called ANOM to allow him to command the app, as well as present it to criminal suspects, according to court documents. In return, the developer, who was facing jail time, would receive $ 120,000, a lighter prison sentence and travel expenses.
The ANOM app is installed on mobile phones stripped of any other capabilities, such as making calls or sending emails. The price varies slightly by region, but could be bought on the black market for about $ 1,300 for a six-month plan in Australia, for example.
Over the next three years, the operation was able to inspect about 27m of messages on 11,800 devices as ANOM gained popularity in criminal circles around the world, driven by the developer but also a network of “influencers” of crime – experts in encrypted phones that encourage others to use such devices. On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Justice charged 17 ANOM “influencers” and the vendors were charged with racketeering.
It is unclear what exactly prompted the FBI and others to disclose the operation this week, and lead the arrest warrants. Australian officials have indicated they need to act to disrupt some dangerous plots on the move, as well as because of legal limits to deadlines for intercepting communications, according to media reports.
An anonymous blogger warned in March that ANOM was a scam in a post since it was largely ignored.
While Trojan Shield seems to be the most widespread, there is still precedent for similar digital sting operations. Last year, European law enforcement forces infiltrated the EncroChat encrypted communications network for a short period of time, triggering hundreds of arrests.
“What illustrates is that you can’t pull trust out of a system,” said Bruce Schneier, a veteran cryptography expert and Harvard lecturer. “Your system, your hardware, your software, your developers, your upgrades – any of those can be subverted.”
He added that Operation ANOM was likely to arouse suspicion of all communication applications between criminals. “This makes it harder to be a criminal from now on.”
Such developments have been welcomed by some privacy advocates who reject calls to ban encryption, or for law enforcement to gain access to messages via backdoors in popular encrypted messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Signal.
“He talks about how these calls for house doors are often not necessary,” Solkani said. “You can use good old-fashioned detective work and sting operations without backdooring the protocols and services that consumers use widely.”
But he also noted that the operation raised ethical questions, pointing to the potential for incidental surveillance of innocent people. “How many criminals and non-targets have also been swept away in this operation?”
For some, there are pending legal questions. “This type of surveillance, if it was in the United States, would violate both the Fourth Amendment and the Telephone Condition Act,” said Jennifer Lynch, director of surveillance litigation at the Electronic Border Foundation, who stressed that the United States has not monitored ANOM users at home. .
“In this case, however, instead of trying to go through legitimate channels in the United States, it seems the FBI is relying on other countries with different laws and perhaps less privacy protectors to wash their surveillance.”