First Responders

FBI Builds, Sells Fake Encryption App To Lure in Criminals

June 10, 2021Joshua Skovlund
operation trojan shield

Police partaking in Operation Trojan Shield escort one of the people suspected of illegal activities. Screenshot from Europol YouTube video.

For two years, criminals all over the world thought they were communicating on an encrypted chat and communications app called ANOM. Used by drug and crime syndicates in over 100 countries, the service allowed for apparently secure coordination for drug deals, shipments, money laundering, and a long list of other illicit uses.

But not only were the FBI and other global law enforcement agencies listening in — ANOM was their creation.

In a worldwide sweep announced Tuesday, law enforcement agencies on at least three continents made 800 arrests, seized 30 tons of street drugs, and disrupted the leadership of major criminal organizations, including Italian organized crime, US motorcycle gangs, international drug trafficking organizations, and many others. 

The giant sting was known as Operation Trojan Shield, named after the ancient myth of the fall of Troy, in which Greeks hid inside a hollow wooden horse that Trojans brought inside their walled city. With the ANOM app, the FBI got criminals to let them inside their own walls of secrecy.

Launched in 2019, the operation sold 12,000 ANOM encrypted devices and services to over 300 criminal syndicates operating in more than 100 countries.

operation trojan shield
The shield that the FBI listed as a logo, showing the countries that participated in the operation throughout the course of the investigations. Logo courtesy of the FBI. Composite image by Joshua Skovlund/Coffee or Die Magazine.

According to the Department of Justice, which announced the arrests and detailed the network Tuesday, a key phase of the operation was shuttering other communications apps used by criminals. Police around the world shut down Phantom Secure, Sky Global, and EncroChat, all of which, say authorities, had facilitated encrypted communications and services for criminal organizations throughout the world. Shutting down these businesses created a vacuum and a large demand for encrypted communication abilities, and Operation Trojan Shield took advantage of that. 

Agents marketed the ANOM services and devices to targets as “designed by criminals for criminals” and charged $1,700 for six months of service.

The federal indictment names 17 defendants around the world as being involved directly in the ANOM distribution, mostly in the Netherlands, Australia, and Turkey. The huge sweep of arrests came from other indictments that used information developed by the ANOM operation. The different criminal organizations purchased devices and services from ANOM, unknowingly granting the FBI the ability to gather information on their criminal activities up until the platform was shut down Tuesday. 

ANOM devices would send copies of all communications to a third party that was contracted by the international task force. Then, the FBI translated and scanned each communication for criminal activities that were either previously executed, currently happening, or planned to happen. 

operation trojan shield
Drugs disguised within boxes bearing a Batman-like logo and a screenshot of an encrypted message exchange discussing drug trafficking. Photos courtesy of the DOJ. Composite image by Joshua Skovlund/Coffee or Die Magazine.

Over 27 million messages were collected, including detailed threats, money laundering, and photos of drug supplies and locations.

“The users, believing their ANOM devices were protected from law enforcement by the shield of impenetrable encryption, openly discussed narcotics concealment methods, shipments of narcotics, money laundering, and in some groups — violent threats,” the DOJ said. 

Agencies involved included the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, US Marshals Service, Department of Justice, Australian Federal Police, Swedish Police Authority, Lithuanian Criminal Police Bureau, National Police of the Netherlands, and Europol. Fifty clandestine drug labs were dismantled throughout the course of the operation, including one of the largest ever found in Germany. 

In total, authorities say, Operation Trojan Shield seized: 

  • Over 8 tons of cocaine.

  • 22 tons of marijuana.

  • 2 tons of methamphetamine-type substances including amphetamine.

  • 6 tons of precursor chemicals used to make illicit narcotics.

  • 250 firearms.

  • Over $48 million in various countries’ currencies. 

“This was an unprecedented operation in terms of its massive scale, innovative strategy and technological and investigative achievement. Hardened encrypted devices usually provide an impenetrable shield against law enforcement surveillance and detection,” acting US Attorney Randy Grossman said. “The supreme irony here is that the very devices that these criminals were using to hide from law enforcement were actually beacons for law enforcement. We aim to shatter any confidence in the hardened encrypted device industry with our indictment and announcement that this platform was run by the FBI.”

Read Next: How Criminals Get Added to the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives List

Joshua Skovlund
Joshua Skovlund

Joshua Skovlund has covered the 75th anniversary of D-Day in France, multinational military exercises in Germany, and civil unrest during the 2020 riots in Minneapolis that followed the death of George Floyd. Born and raised in small-town South Dakota, he grew up playing football and soccer before serving as a forward observer in the US Army. After leaving the service, he earned his CrossFit Level 1 certificate and worked as a personal trainer while earning his paramedic license. He went on to work in paramedicine for more than five years, much of that time in the North Minneapolis area, before transitioning to a career in multimedia journalism. Joshua is married with two children. His creative outlets include Skovlund Photography and Concentrated Emotion, where he publishes poetry focused on his life experiences.

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