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Drug Rings' Favorite New Encrypted Platform Had One Flaw: The FBI Controlled It

A man was arrested in an international sting operation targeting drug smugglers. Australian Federal Police blurred the suspect's face due to privacy concerns.
A man was arrested in an international sting operation targeting drug smugglers. Australian Federal Police blurred the suspect's face due to privacy concerns.

Updated June 8, 2021 at 1:12 PM ET

The criminals texted each other about drug deals and money laundering, confident in special encrypted devices using a platform dubbed Anom. There was just one problem for the crime rings: The FBI was being copied on every message — millions of them worldwide. In fact, the agency had sent the Anom devices into the black market in the first place.

Those are the details and allegations that are now emerging about Operation Trojan Shield, an international effort coordinated by the FBI that has resulted in more than 800 arrests.

Authorities have also seized more than 8 tons of cocaine, with 22 tons of cannabis and several tons of other drugs, along with "55 luxury vehicles and over $48 million in various worldwide currencies and cryptocurrencies," the European law enforcement agency Europol says.

The FBI says law enforcement agencies worked together to supply "more than 12,000 devices to hundreds of criminal organizations that operate around the globe."

It's "one of the largest and most sophisticated law enforcement operations to date in the fight against encrypted criminal activities," according to Europol.

With the help of Europol, the FBI identified "over 300 distinct TCOs [transnational criminal organizations] using Anom, including Italian organized crime, Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, and various international narcotics source, transportation, and distribution cells," according to a search warrant affidavit filed in court by Nicholas Cheviron, an FBI special agent in San Diego. The document was unsealed Monday.

The document includes transcripts of smugglers' conversations in which they name their prices and handling fees and describe their methods. Many of them also sent snapshots to each other, showing packages of cocaine and other drugs. They discussed strategies, from adding drugs to diplomatic pouches to filling pineapples and tuna cans with cocaine.

A discussion between alleged drug smugglers was captured by the FBI using an encrypted platform that organized crime rings believed was safe from law enforcement's eyes. This image was included in an FBI affidavit for a search warrant.
/ Screen grab by NPR
A discussion between alleged drug smugglers was captured by the FBI using an encrypted platform that organized crime rings believed was safe from law enforcement's eyes. This image was included in an FBI affidavit for a search warrant.

Since late 2018, the smuggling rings had come to rely on the Anom devices, which were touted as being able to send secure, encrypted messages in a closed digital environment, along with the promise that their data would be wiped remotely if they fell into the hands of police.

But from early on, the devices' developer was collaborating with the FBI — and as their use spread, the devices surreptitiously sent copies of the criminals' messages to the FBI, the Australian Federal Police and other agencies.

The FBI gained a real-time window into the lucrative world of international organized crime in 2018 after its San Diego office busted Phantom Secure, a company that provided hardened encrypted devices to criminal organizations. Its CEO, Vincent Ramos, pleaded guilty; other company leaders were also indicted.

FBI agents in San Diego then recruited a confidential source who said they were working on a "next generation" encrypted device, according to Cheviron's affidavit. That source also had ties to Phantom Secure's shadowy distribution network — and agreed to let the FBI take control of the new device and help it spread.

"Before the device could be put to use," Cheviron said in the court filing, agencies in the U.S. and Australia worked with the source to build "a master key into the existing encryption system which surreptitiously attaches to each message and enables law enforcement to decrypt and store the message as it is transmitted."

Cheviron added, "A user of Anom is unaware of this capability."

Recently, criminals who tried to use the Anom encrypted platform were instead informed that law enforcement agencies had been "monitoring messages and attachments."
/ FBI
Recently, criminals who tried to use the Anom encrypted platform were instead informed that law enforcement agencies had been "monitoring messages and attachments."

"Hardened" encryption devices such as the modified phones on the Anom platform commonly sell for up to around $2,000, the FBI says. They're sold only through word-of-mouth referrals by distributors whose reputations make them trusted within criminals' circles.

It was that trust — along with drug shipments and other illegal activities — that law enforcement agencies were hoping to disrupt.

"Criminal groups using encrypted communications to thwart law enforcement should no longer feel safe in that space," Jamie Arnold, FBI San Diego assistant special agent in charge, said in a news release about the operation.

"We hope criminals worldwide will fear that the FBI or another law enforcement organization may, in fact, be running their platform," Arnold added.

From its first foothold in Australia, the Anom network spread to more than 100 countries, Europol says, adding that police agencies were able to obtain some 27 million messages.

In addition to drug offenses, the Australian Federal Police says it disrupted 20 threats to kill people.

A map provided by the FBI in a federal affidavit shows the reach of Anom — an encrypted phone platform the agency took control of. The FBI and other international agencies say the operation has resulted in hundreds of arrests.
/ Screen grab by NPR
A map provided by the FBI in a federal affidavit shows the reach of Anom — an encrypted phone platform the agency took control of. The FBI and other international agencies say the operation has resulted in hundreds of arrests.

Police agencies in Australia now have "years of intelligence and evidence" because of the wealth of information gleaned from the platform, Australian Federal Police Commissioner Reece Kershaw said. Further charges are also likely, including public corruption — a result, in some cases, of the messages' details about officials who were willing to aid smugglers.

In Sweden, information gathered from the operation meant police were "able to arrest a significant number of leading actors within the violent crime and drug networks," according to Linda H. Staaf, head of intelligence for the Swedish Police.

Law enforcement agencies were in a unique position to help the new Anom device find its market. In recent years, they've taken down three similar networks — Phantom Secure, EncroChat and, earlier this year, Sky Global — boosting criminals' demand for a new alternative. In many cases, Anom filled that void.

"The top five countries where Anom devices are currently used are Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Australia, and Serbia," the FBI affidavit says.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.