For nearly three years, the FBI covertly ran an encrypted messaging app that tricked criminals into divulging their illegal activities on a massive scale. Data pulled from the honeypot led to hundreds of arrests across 18 countries, authorities revealed Tuesday.
The app, known as An0m, claimed to offer its criminal clientele secure communications — almost like an illicit WhatsApp. In reality, the FBI surveilled the platform for clandestine conversations on organized crime, drug trafficking, and money laundering. “Essentially, we have been in the back pockets of organized crime and operationalized a criminal takedown like we have never seen,” Australian Federal Police commissioner Reece Kershaw said at a press event. The global operation was code-named Trojan Shield in the United States and Europe and Special Operation Ironside in Australia.
The FBI and AFP designed the communications platform to entice crime gangs by suiting their needs for secure, encrypted communications. A May 18 affidavit filed by FBI special agent Nicolas Cheviron said the FBI, the AFP, and their developer source “built 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.”
“It has a good reputation among criminals. They mutually promote it as the platform you should use for its absolute reliability,” Jannine van den Berg, chief commissioner of the national unit of the Dutch police, said at a press event. Indeed, all told, there were 20 million messages from more than 11,000 devices. “But nothing was further from the truth,” van den Berg added.
More than 800 suspects were arrested worldwide in “one of the largest and most sophisticated law-enforcement operations to date in the fight against encrypted criminal activities,” Europol, the agency that coordinates police activity among the 27 European Union countries, said in a press release. Internationally, the operation seized 250 firearms, 55 luxury cars, and $48 million in cash and cryptocurrency, plus 22 tons of marijuana, eight tons of cocaine, and two tons of methamphetamine and amphetamine.