Organized Crime Sting an ‘Unprecedented Blow’ to Global Criminal Networks

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FBI Investigation. Photo by Adam Quirk via Flickr.

The arrest of hundreds of alleged criminals from around the globe in a massive international crackdown was made possible by an encrypted social messaging platform with custom cell phones covertly created by the FBI, according to ABC Australia and the Washington Post. 

Deploying what amounted to a classic “sting” operation, law enforcement agencies in Europe, the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand allowed sophisticated criminals to believe they were using an encrypted messaging app on unique black cell phones equipped with a Qualcomm Snapdragon processor to securely organize their illegal activity.

However, the entire time, they were feeding their messages directly to the FBI, who spent years building the fake technology company called ANØM and organized an “international underworld takedown.” 

The operation dealt “an unprecedented blow to criminal networks, and this is worldwide,” Dutch National Police chief constable Jannine van der Berg told ABC Australia.

It represented an evolution in organized-crime fighting, as law enforcement has truly graduated from being reactive, to being proactive — and saving lives, police said.

Dubbed operation “Trojan Shield” in the United States and “Operation Ironside” overseas, many are acknowledging that this is one of the largest gang and drug busts of all time as thousands of police across multiple agencies executed roughly 500 search warrants, arrested 224 people, and charged them with more than 525 offenses, according to ABC Australia.

Authorities also seized more than 32 tonnes of drugs — cocaine, cannabis, amphetamines and methamphetamines — along with 250 firearms, 55 luxury cars and more than $148 million in cash and cryptocurrencies, according to ABC Australia. 

Investigators have noted that one of the benefits to ANØM is that criminals were organizing their illegal activity in plain language because of the comfort they felt with the level of encryption. 

Instead of having to decipher code-words and unscramble messages like in the movies, all of their illegal activity was spelled out. Because of the richness of the evidence, many believe cascading investigations will likely go on for years.  

“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,” Acting U.S. attorney in San Diego Randy Grossman announced Tuesday, as quoted by the Washington Post.

Crime-Fighting Evolution: ANØM’s Origins

Since 2019, the New York Times details that the FBI has been secretly selling encrypted cell phones to criminals to better track them without their knowledge. 

Their efforts were impressive then, advocates say, but their fake company ANØM was so slick and convincing, it dazzled the “underworld ‘influencers’” that undercover investigators were targeting. 

“But not just anyone could become a customer,” the San Diego Union-Tribune details, as their reporters dug into ANØM’s origin story.

In order to get a custom phone, new users had to be vetted by known existing customers already on the app.

“It has a good reputation among criminals. They mutually promote it as the platform you should use for its absolute reliability,” van den Berg told the Washington Post. “But nothing was further from the truth.”

Early on, Hakan Ayik, one of Australia’s most-wanted criminals, praised the devices to his associates and encouraged their uptake, signaling to the FBI and law enforcement around the globe that ANØM was going to make waves. 

Before the current ANØM phone was created, it was just an undercover agent’s idea that was sparked by a 2015 arrest of drug kingpin Owen Hanson.

Qualcomm Snapdragon processor used in the ANØM phones. Photo by Adafruit Industries via Flickr.

An undercover agent infiltrated his inner circle, and gained Hanson’s trust enough to be given an encrypted cell phone to talk business. The phone was a product of Phantom Secure, an encryption service provider that turned Blackberries into ultra-secure messaging platforms on closed servers. 

When Phantom Secure’s CEO declined to cooperate with investigations and criminal charges by building a back door into his criminal underworld devices for law enforcement, he was arrested and sentenced to 9 years in prison. 

However, the New York Times reports that the FBI knew they couldn’t replicate what Phantom Secure built alone, so they quickly recruited a former Phantom Secure distributor who had been developing a new encrypted communications system, called Anom. The informant agreed to work with the FBI and let the bureau control the blooming brand and network— and the genesis of ANØM began. 

Thankfully, many say ANØM has saved lives. 

Sweden’s head of police intelligence, Linda Staaf, said information collected by AN0M had led to 155 arrests there so far, including 70 this week, and another five in Spain.

But what’s more important and impressive, Staaf says, is that their information actually helped keep people safe, reports ABC Australia

“We have been receiving intelligence to build criminal cases and we have also had information that has helped us to prevent more than 10 planned murders within Sweden,” she said.

Similarly, the arrests disrupted at least 21 threats to kill from organized groups, including a planned machine-gun attack against a family of five at a cafe in Australia.

Australian Federal Police Commissioner Reece Kershaw believes this latest technology and the information they’ve accumulated will guide them in their crime-fighting efforts for years to come. 

“It’s given law enforcement a window into a level of criminality we’ve never seen before on this scale,” Kershaw expressed, as quoted by the San Diego Union-Tribune, adding that this unprecedented understanding into the functioning criminal modern world will power investigations for decades. 

Additional Reading: Police Shut Down Organized Crime Secret Phone Network in Europe

Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer.

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