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San Diego FBI Leads Global ‘ANOM’ Sting Operation Via Encrypted Phones
Tuesday, June 8, 2021
Photo by Jacob Aere
Federal authorities in San Diego revealed their role Tuesday in the creation of an encrypted communications network utilized by criminals around the globe, leading to hundreds of arrests worldwide.
Dubbed Operation Trojan Shield, the San Diego-based FBI-led operation was centered around the creation of an encrypted phone company called ANOM, whose website has now been taken down.
Acting United States attorney Randy Grossman said ANOM collected messages regarding drug trafficking, money laundering and planned murders as criminals believed they were communicating on a secure-messaging service.
“The criminals using these devices believed they were secretly planning crimes far beneath the radar of law enforcement. But in reality, the criminals were not underneath the radar, they were on it. The FBI was monitoring those conversations,” Grossman said.
Authorities said more than 12,000 ANOM phones were purchased and distributed by criminals in more than 100 nations, and were used to coordinate and discuss criminal operations ranging from drug trafficking to money laundering.
Special Agent Suzanne Turner is in charge of the FBI’s field office in San Diego. She said the FBI collected more than 27 million messages, many about specific criminal activities.
“It was exactly what car was coming to what location. What, maybe vessel or ship, and they were very specific in their detail because they believed it was secure communications,” Turner said.
Grossman said the supposed secrecy provided by the ANOM devices were held in such high regard by its users and distributors that "they openly marketed them to other potential users as designed by criminals, for criminals."
More than 9,000 of the phones were active when the ANOM network was shut down on Monday.
According to the U.S. Attorney's Office, the operation was born out of the takedown of the Canadian-based Phantom Secure encrypted telecommunications network by San Diego authorities, which left a void in the encrypted communications market. Takedowns of two other major encrypted networks followed, and Grossman said, "the demand for ANOM exploded."
More than 500 people were arrested over the past two days, with 800 arrested in total throughout the course of the investigation. Authorities also seized drugs, firearms and millions in various currencies, and dismantled clandestine drug labs in the process, including one on Monday in Germany, which was described as one of the largest in the country's history.
“Authorities have searched more than 700 locations, deploying more than 9000 law enforcement officers worldwide. And they've seized multi-ton quantities of illicit drugs,” Grossman said.
The U.S. Attorney's Office said the investigation has also led to the initiation of "dozens of public corruption cases."
The announcement coincided with the unsealing of a federal grand jury indictment in San Diego charging 17 foreign nationals with conspiring to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act — or RICO — for their roles in selling and marketing thousands of ANOM devices to transnational criminal organizations, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office. Eight of those defendants have been arrested thus far, Grossman said.
The indictment alleges the charged defendants were aware of the devices' use in criminal activity and personally handled "wipe requests" from users when their phones fell into law enforcement hands.
The Trojan Shield arrests are the culmination of more than five years of investigation. Federal agents said after this operation, criminals will likely be less trusting of encrypted messaging services.
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