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FBI’s Trojan Shield Operation Exposed the Global Criminal Underworld

Let’s take a trip back to May 2020 when two users of the encrypted messaging platform called AN0M were planning their next drugs shipment from Colombia to Hong Kong. One of the users who went by the AN0M username; Real G, sent a photo of a box containing cocaine ready to be shipping to his Asian counterpart. Real G wrote; “They cover this with a layer of banana leaves,” explaining that this was the intended method to hide the drugs. Here’s the catch though; Unbeknown to Real G and hundreds of other criminals who all believed that AN0M was ‘the’ best and securest app to arrange drug deals, money laundering and even murders, the FBI was literally looking over the shoulders of every message being sent.

27 million messages

Conceived by the FBI, operation Trojan Shield’s purpose was to secretly distribute devices with the AN0M app among criminals allowing police to catalogue more than 27 million messages relating to “drug smuggling, money laundering and even murder plots”. The sting operation targeted gangs dealing in drugs and even ties to the mafia, leading to the seizure of over eight tons of cocaine, 22 tons of marijuana, two tons of methamphetamines and amphetamines, 250 firearms and more than USD $48m in various currencies.

In total more than 800 people have been arrested all over the world in an operation dubbed to be the most successful sting that lured drug dealers, mafia members and other organized criminals to an encrypted communications platform (Secretly run by the FBI). Based on court documents it’s been concluded that law enforcement monitored more than 12,000 encrypted devices and over 300 criminal syndicates.

Messages sent on encrypted communication app: AN0M.

2017: Trojan Shield

Back to 2017, when it all started, when “the FBI in San Diego began investigating a secure messaging system” – named “Phantom Secure” that was;

Being marketed exclusively to organized crime groups

Vincent Ramos, the CEO of Phantom Secure was already arrested in Las Vegas in 2019. This left a hole in the market when it came to encrypted communication among criminals. An anonymous informant offered their new technology for a secure communication app to the investigators. And this is when the FBI decided to fill the gap themselves instead of waiting for the criminals to do it for them.

Thus, operation Trojan Shield was born. The operation has shown light on the market of privacy oriented messaging apps which are being increasingly used by criminals. It also shows to what lengths law enforcement is willing to go to crack down on criminal organizations. The question remains though; Was this entrapment or not?

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.

Acting US attorney Randy Grossman.

2018/2019: AN0M

In 2018 the FBI “strategically developed” AN0M according to Jean-Philippe Lecouffe, deputy director for operations at Europol, the EU law enforcement co-operation agency. After “busting” various other encrypted communication apps used by criminals (including the Sky ECC), they started using AN0M in large numbers.

After this significant takedown, global criminal operating networks were looking for an alternative.

Jean-Philippe Lecouffe, deputy director for operations at Europol

Lecouffe added that this is where the encrypted platform, AN0M, under the control of the FBI, was in a situation to fill the communication void.

The sting operation itself started in 2019, when the FBI began covertly operating the encrypted device network AN0M. Devices with the encrypted chat app installed where being distributed to criminals by FBI informants. The cell phones were smart phones that had been stripped of all normal functions. They had just one working app “disguised as the calculator function”, allowing “users to send messages and photos with end-to-end encryption.

The phones were selling on the dark web and black market for prices around USD $2,000. Criminals who wanted to use the phone and the AN0M network had to enter a special code. The phones could then be used to “securely” message other AN0M users.

Results of operation Trojan Shield.

2020/2021: Execution

As the devices began to circulate organically and grew in popularity among criminals, users would become more confident about app’s security because high-profile organized crime figures vouched for its integrity, law enforcement officials said.

During the operation that ran for three years, around 12,000 encrypted devices were distributed throughout more than 300 criminal syndicates in over 100 countries according to Europol officials. It gave law enforcement an insight into Italian organized crime, outlaw motorcycle gangs and international drug trafficking organizations. They all trusted the devices so much that many of them explained their plans in plain language. But unbeknown to them the FBI and law enforcement in 17 countries were all looking over their shoulders.

Dubbed as biggest and most sophisticated crime sting in history, for this operation to be successful the FBI partnered with law enforcement in 17 countries. There may have been one positive outcome though; More than 100 murder plots were also thwarted.

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