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How the FBI busted criminals by running their messaging app

Everything else went online, why not drug busts?

Law enforcement officials stand in front of an Operation Trojan Shield logo.
Law enforcement officials stand in front of an Operation Trojan Shield logo at a news conference held to announce Operation Trojan Shield Tuesday, June 8, 2021, in San Diego.
Denis Poroy, Associated Press

A massive international undercover operation this week led to hundreds of arrests of drug traffickers and other criminals, according to CBS News.

  • For almost two years, law enforcement slowly infiltrated organized crime operations in one critical way — it ran their communication platform, reported NBC News. Here’s how:

What is Operation Trojan Shield?

Operation Trojan Shield, an FBI-led effort, involved massive coordination with law enforcement from dozens of countries, said CBS News.

The operation began in 2018 after the FBI busted Phantom Secure, a company formerly providing secure communications to criminal organizations, said NPR. The FBI and Australian Federal Police began developing a replacement that they could use to infiltrate organized crime communications.

  • The operation included the FBI, Australian Federal Police, European Union police agency Europol and other agencies, CBS News reported.

Trojan Shield is notable for the scale of collaboration and the effort required to keep the operation from leaking, reported NBC News.

How did the encrypted platform Anom work?

Anom is a messaging platform on “hardened” devices — or modified phones — that sell for $2,000 on the black market by word of mouth only, NPR reported. Every message sent on Anom copied the FBI, Australian Federal Police and other agencies — without the user’s knowledge.

Over 12,000 devices were spread worldwide to hundreds of criminal organizations, NPR reported. The top five countries using Anom include: Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Australia and Serbia, the FBI said.

  • Law enforcement collected over 27 million messages from Anom for about 18 months, said NBC News.
  • On the app, criminals discussed trafficking, contract killings, armed robberies, drugs, arms and explosives, saed NBC News.
  • Law enforcement recorded it all, said CBS News.

How many were busted because of Anom?

Law enforcement in 16 countries has carried out operations based on information collected from Anom, targeting drug trafficking rings.

  • Over 800 criminals have been arrested from more than 700 locations due to coordinated efforts of more than 9,000 officers, reported CBS News.
  • Police have seized more than 32 million tons of drugs, 250 firearms, 50 luxury vehicles and almost $50 million in various currencies and cryptocurrencies, according to multiple reports.
  • Police have busted more than 50 clandestine drug labs, including the largest lab in Germany’s history.
  • Police used information shared on Anom to mitigate over 100 threats to life.

Information from Anom may also lead to corruption charges since some communications included names of public officials willing to aid smugglers, said NPR.

What happens now?

Law enforcement hopes that this operation will have far-reaching implications. According to NPR, FBI San Diego Special Agent Jamie Arnold said, “Criminal groups using encrypted communications to thwart law enforcement should no longer feel safe in that space.”

  • “We hope criminals worldwide will fear that the FBI or another law enforcement organization may, in fact, be running their platform,” Arnold said via NPR.