An End-to-End encrypted chat platform created just to catch cybercriminals: Operation Ironside or Trojan Shield offered ANOM exclusively to criminals

FBI AFP Operation Ironside
An international drug bust involving an encrypted chat platform for criminals. Pic credit: André Gustavo Stumpf/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

A meticulously planned and executed online operation, involving a fully encrypted chat application, led to one of the biggest drug busts spanning multiple countries. The U.S. FBI and Australia’s AFP jointly conceptualized and executed Operation Ironside or Operation Trojan Shield.

An international task force created and offered ANOM, an end-to-end encrypted chat platform, exclusively to catch criminals. The FBI and AFP created the fake encrypted messaging platform which several criminals bought for secret communication.

What is Operation Ironside or Operation Trojan Shield and how did it help catch criminals?

Criminal organizations often rely on encrypted messaging platforms to keep law enforcement from monitoring their communications. There are several communication platforms that promise End-to-End encryption such as Signal, WhatsApp, Telegram, etc.

Back In 2018, the FBI arrested the CEO of encrypted messaging platform Phantom Secure. He was marketing customized communication devices to criminal organizations. He was also aiding them in their illegal activities.

The FBI revealed that after the arrest, they recruited a Confidential Human Source (CHS) who had previously distributed Phantom Secure and Sky Global communication devices. The source was creating their own “next generation” communications device.

According to court documents filed by the FBI and unsealed yesterday, the CHS agreed to work with the FBI in the hopes of a reduced sentence. He (or she) helped the FBI and the AFP to create a new encrypted messaging platform called ANOM.

The CHS also agreed to market the ANOM devices to distributors who usually work with criminal organizations. The security agencies also created the website Anom.io that included a teaser video illustrating the customized messaging device.

The operation, which involved the FBI, AFP, and the CHS, had the master key to decrypt all the encrypted communication. Needless to mention, When ANOM users sent messages, the device would secretly attach a master key to each message. This allowed law enforcement to eavesdrop on all messages.

ANOM offered a treasure trove of 27 million messages, mostly exchanged between criminals dealing in drugs, weapons, cryptocurrencies, and luxury vehicles:

The ANOM messaging service was relatively quite popular among criminals simply because it came with dedicated hardware that claimed to offer fully encrypted communication. Overall, the platform amassed a collection of 27 million messages where criminals discussed their activities.

press release by Europol reads: “Since 2019, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, in close coordination with the Australian Federal Police, strategically developed and covertly operated an encrypted device company, called ANOM, which grew to service more than 12,000 encrypted devices to over 300 criminal syndicates operating in more than 100 countries, including Italian organized crime, outlaw motorcycle gangs, and international drug trafficking organizations”.

At the culmination of the operation, multiple security agencies had collectively arrested 800 people. The multi-national operation also seized “8 tons of cocaine, 22 tons of cannabis and cannabis resin, 2 tons of synthetic drugs (amphetamine and methamphetamine), 6 tons of synthetic drugs precursors, 250 firearms, 55 luxury vehicles and over $48 million in various worldwide currencies and cryptocurrencies”.

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