More than 800 people have been arrested around the world in a sweeping police sting that lured drug dealers, mafia members and other organised criminals to an encrypted communications platform secretly run by the FBI.
Investigators said they monitored more than 12,000 devices used by more than 300 criminal syndicates in an operation that led to seizures of more than 13 tonnes of drugs, $148m in cash and the disruption of more than 100 murder plots.
The crackdown by 16 national law enforcement agencies, known as Trojan Shield, is the latest thrust in an escalating battle against digital encryption-enabled crime. European authorities swooped on crime gangs across the continent last year after cracking the EncroChat communication service.
Calvin Shivers, an assistant director from the FBI’s criminal investigative division, said Trojan Shield was a “shining example” of what could be achieved when authorities around the world developed “state of the art investigative tools to detect, disrupt and dismantle criminal organisations”.
“The success of Operation Trojan Shield is a result of tremendous innovation, dedication and unprecedented international co-operation,” Shivers told reporters on Tuesday. “The results are staggering.”
Investigators seized more than six tonnes of cocaine, five tonnes of marijuana or hashish, and two tonnes of methamphetamines through monitoring communications on the platform known as ANOM, Shivers said.
Authorities were able to uncover large quantities of cocaine hidden in shipments of fruit and canned goods, he added. The crime gangs targeted had operations in more than 100 countries.
The FBI “strategically developed” ANOM in 2018, said Jean-Philippe Lecouffe, deputy director for operations at Europol, the EU law enforcement co-operation agency. Criminals began to use it in large numbers after busts of other encrypted chat networks including the Sky ECC platform in March.
“After this significant takedown, global criminal operating networks were looking for an alternative,” Lecouffe said. “This is where the encrypted platform, ANOM, under the control of the FBI, was in a situation to fill the communication void.”
Australian police said they had disrupted 21 murder plots and seized 3.7 tonnes of drugs during the operation. They monitored more than 25m messages sent in real time, Australian and US investigators said at a joint news conference that detailed the three-year police operation.
Police said 9,000 officers had taken part in co-ordinated raids in multiple countries and that there had been 224 arrests in Australia and 35 in New Zealand. Details of other national police operations were due to be released later on Tuesday.
Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, said the international operation marked a watershed in law enforcement.
“The Australian government, as part of a global operation, has struck a heavy blow against organised crime — not just in this country, but one that will echo around organised crime around the world,” he said.
The police sting operation marked the latest use of technologies such as spyware and Trojan horse software during investigations by law enforcement authorities of criminals and terrorist organisations.
The ANOM app was installed on mobile phones stripped of any other capability. The phones, which were bought on the black market, could not make calls or send emails. They could only send messages to another device that had the organised crime app, Australian police said in a statement.
The devices circulated organically and grew in popularity among criminals, who were confident of the app’s security because high-profile organised crime figures vouched for its integrity, the police said.
Greg Barton, a counter-terrorism expert at Deakin University in Melbourne, said deploying the Trojan horse software on modified phones was a brilliant example of using social engineering to fight organised crime.
“Australian police authorities and their counterparts around the world will have gathered more insight into the workings of organised criminals and disrupted their operations for a period,” he said.
“These are important temporary victories in endless cat and mouse battles with criminals.”