Criminals thought they were using “secure” devices – turns out they were provided by the FBI, foreign authorities

Aside from going after Trump supporters who “trespassed” at the Capitol on January 6, the FBI actually does some real criminal investigations.

One such investigation involved a sting where the FBI, in cooperation with Australian police, facilitated a scheme where organized crime figures around the world obtained “black market” cellphones, which were used to facilitate criminal activity.

The  Seattle Times, citing a New York Times report, said that the cellphones were designed to perform one single function hidden inside the phones behind a calculator app, which was to send encrypted messages and photos.

The criminals used the devices to “orchestrate international drug shipments, coordinate the trafficking of arms and explosives, and discuss contract law killings,” law enforcement sources told the Times.

In fact, device users had so much confidence in the security of the devices that they would communicate in plain language, not coded messages and would mention “specific smuggling vessels and drop-off points.”

Tuesday, the scheme was revealed by global law enforcement authorities, who confirmed the receipt of over 20 million messages in 45 languages which resulted in the arrests of over 800 people over a two-day period in over a dozen countries.

By utilizing the messages on the intercepts, law enforcement authorities opened a number of international investigations involving drug trafficking, money laundering and “high-level public corruption.”

The sting marked a turning point for law enforcement entities because over the past several years, criminals have been using increasingly sophisticated means of communicating criminal activity.

Although law enforcement officials have been able to crack or shut down encrypted platforms in the past, the new operation, called “Trojan Shield” is the first time law enforcement authorities have been able to control “an entire encrypted network from its inception.”

In addressing the operation, Europol, a European police agency called the program “one of the largest and most sophisticated law enforcement operations to date in the fight against encrypted criminal activities.”

“Countless spinoff operations will be carried out in the weeks to come,” Europol said in a statement.

American authorities announced additional arrests in a federal racketeering indictment which was unsealed on Tuesday.

Meanwhile in Australia, the operation which involved domestic and international organized crime groups and motorcycle gangs led to the arrests of over 200 people.

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In Sweden, police arrested 155 people on suspicion of involvement in serious crimes, while also preventing at least 10 people from being killed, authorities said in a statement. In Italy, organized crime and international drug trafficking operations were targeted, with several hundred more people being arrested throughout Europe.

Trojan Shield began in 2018, according to court documents released by the Justice Department on Monday. It began in response to the dismantling of a Canadian-based encryption service called Phantom Secure.

That company supplied encrypted cellphones to drug gangs such as the Mexican Sinaloa cartel, along with other criminal groups.

The FBI utilized a former Phantom Secure distributor who had been developing a new encrypted communications platform called Anom. That distributor agreed to work as an informant for the FBI and let that organization control the network in exchange for a reduced prison sentence, court documents said. The informant was paid $120,000 for his services.

The Anom devices were cellphones which had all of their normal functions removed, with the only working app being disguised as a calculator. A user would enter a code, which could then send messages and photos with end-to-end encryption.

The operation provided more than 12,000 such devices which were sold to over 300 criminal syndicates operating in over 100 countries, Europol said. While the device cost varied by location, court papers said six-month subscriptions were available for $1,700 in the United States.

The FBI and Australian authorities, along with the informant developed a “master key” that allowed them to reroute the messages to a third country where they would be decrypted, ultimately resulting in the interception of more than 27 million messages.

The informant also assisted criminal justice authorities into what are typically insular criminal networks. In October 2018, the informant started offering the devices to three other distributors connected to organized crime in Australia.

Authorities received a break when they were able to get one of the devices into the hands of a man named Joseph Hakan Ayik, an Australian who fled that country around ten years ago, and who police believe directed drug imports from Turkey. He was also named the top defendant in the racketeering indictment unsealed in San Diego, along with 16 others from Australia, Finland, Sweden, Columbia, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.

Law enforcement authorities received “exceptional insight into the criminal landscape,” according to Jean-Philippe Lecouffe, deputy executive director of Europol.

By utilizing information gleaned from the encrypted cellphones, authorities found criminals organized the shipment of cocaine from Ecuador to Belgium inside a container concealed within cans of tuna, U.S. court documents said. In addition, cocaine was trafficked in French diplomatic sealed envelopes out of Bogota, Columbia.

Australian authorities admitted that Anom only carried a small percentage of the total percentage of the total volume of encrypted communications sent by criminal networks.

However, U.S. officials this past spring attempted to increase its market share. For example, in March prosecutors in San Diego indicted the leaders of one of Anom’s chief competitors, Sky Global which served to “drive their customer base” toward Anom, an FBI official said.

One other advantage of Anom? Authorities running it were able to directly listen to the target audience and provide users with what they wanted. As an example, users spoke of wanting smaller, newer phones, a request which authorities soon provided.

The operation was revealed this past week by Australian authorities because they wanted “to disrupt dangerous plots currently in motion,” as well as the fact there were “limited time frames for legal authorities…to intercept the communications,” the Times said.

Another reason investigators decided to pull the plug was because wiretap authorizations were scheduled to lapse and since the sting operation had already gathered sufficient evidence, the timing was right, according to Suzanne Turner, special agent in charge of the FBI’s San Diego field office.

The Trojan Shield operation was similar to a much smaller FBI sting—Operation Server Jack—that the bureau began over ten years ago against the former leader of the Sinaloa drug cartel, the well-known El Chapo. That operation used El Chapo’s personal IT employee to assist them in tapping into the drug cartel’s network of an earlier generation of encrypted phones.

Europol said that in addition to the 800 arrests, which included a handful of law enforcement officers, the operations conducted in the 16 countries led to 700 house searches, led to the seizures of tons of drugs, 250 firearms, 55 luxury vehicles and $48 million over several currencies and cryptocurrencies.

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Author: Pat Droney


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