Police officers released a three-year operation in which they said they had intercepted millions of messages that led to hundreds of arrests around the world.
MELBOURNE, Australia – Cell phones bought on the black market performed the same function hidden behind a calculator app: sending encrypted messages and photos.
Law enforcement officials said that for years, organized crime figures around the world used these devices to organize international drug shipments, coordinate the smuggling of weapons and explosives, and discuss contract killings. Users were so confident in the security of the equipment that they often stated their plans not in code, but in simple language.
Unsurprisingly, the entire network was managed by the FBI in coordination with the Australian Police.
On Tuesday, law enforcement officials around the world unearthed a three-year-long operation that they said intercepted more than 20 million messages and detained at least 800 people in more than a dozen countries.
The operation, known as Trojan Shield, represented a breakthrough for law enforcement. Although authorities have cracked or shut down encrypted platforms in the past – such as an EncroChat call that European police received to hack-, this is the first known case in which authorities have controlled an entire encrypted network since its creation.
European law enforcement agency Europol described the effort as “one of the largest and most sophisticated police operations to date in the fight against encrypted criminal activity”.
“There will be countless spin-offs in the coming weeks,” said Europol release. US law enforcement is expected to announce more arrests on Tuesday.
In Australia, the operation caught national and international organized crime groups and gangs of outlaw motorcyclists, arresting more than 200 people, according to officials. In Sweden, police arrested 155 people on suspicion of serious crimes and the operation prevented the killing of 10 people, according to officials. a statement. The operation also targeted Italian organized crime and international drug trafficking organizations, and hundreds more were arrested in Europe.
“We are in the pocket of organized crime”, Tuesday Announced Reece Kershaw, Australian Federal Police Commissioner.
The FBI operation began in early 2018 after the bureau destroyed a Canada-based encryption service called Phantom Secure, according to court documents released Monday by the Justice Department. That company supplied encrypted cell phones to drug cartels and other criminal groups, according to officials.
Recognizing a gap in the underground market, the FBI recruited a former Phantom Secure distributor who was developing a new encrypted communications system called Anom. According to court documents, the informant agreed to work for the FBI and control the network in exchange for the possibility of a reduced prison sentence to the bureau. According to the documents, the FBI paid the informant $120,000.
Enom devices were cell phones that were stripped of all their normal functions. The only app that worked was disguised as a calculator: after entering a code, users could send messages and photos with end-to-end encryption. According to Europol, in three years, more than 12,000 Anom devices were sold to more than 300 criminal organizations operating in more than 100 countries.
In collaboration with Australian authorities, the FBI and informants developed a “master key” that allowed them to route messages to a third country and decrypt them, thus intercepting more than 27 million messages.
Authorities also relied on the informant to obtain equipment for the highly closed criminal network. Whistleblower began in October 2018 by offering the device to three other distributors involved in organized crime in Australia.
According to law enforcement officials, a breakthrough came when they managed to obtain a device from the hands of Hakan Ayik, an Australian who fled the country a decade ago and police believe he directed drug imports from Turkey. Has been doing.
Europol deputy executive director Jean-Philippe Lecouf said the operation provided law enforcement with “an extraordinary perspective on the crime landscape”.
According to US court documents, via encrypted mobile phones, criminals organized a shipment of cocaine from Ecuador to Belgium in a container hidden inside cans of tuna. Cocaine was also smuggled out of Colombia’s capital Bogota in sealed French diplomatic envelopes.
Australian authorities acknowledged that Anonymous carried only a small percentage of the total volume of encrypted communications sent by criminal networks. But he said Anonymous had an advantage: The people who ran it — directly — could listen to the target audience and give users what they wanted.
After users spoke of wanting newer, smaller phones, officials started making them available.
Australian officials said they had disclosed the operation on Tuesday because of the need to disrupt ongoing dangerous plans and the limited time frame given by legal authorities to intercept communications.
Anom’s website previously featured stylish graphics and flashy videos reminiscent of Apple commercials. On Tuesday, I had a new message: Users who wanted to “discuss how their account is connected to an ongoing investigation” can enter their account details.
Europol said that, in addition to 800 arrests, operations conducted in 16 countries in recent days have resulted in the searches of 700 homes, several tons of drugs, 250 firearms, 55 luxury vehicles and $48 million in various currencies and cryptocurrencies.
yan zhuang Melbourne, Australia, and . reported from alien peltier from London. Christina Anderson Collaborated with reporting from Stockholm.
Yan Zhuang is a reporter at the Australia Bureau and lives in Melbourne. @yanzhuang25
Alien Peltier is a reporter for the London Bureau and focuses on breaking news. @ElianPeltier