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San Diego FBI Leads Global 'ANOM' Sting Operation Via Encrypted Phones

 June 9, 2021 at 10:15 AM PDT

Speaker 1: 00:00 A global crime sting that was made possible by FBI agents and federal prosecutors in San Diego has led to the arrest of hundreds of criminals across Europe and Australia. For years, organized crime members were utilizing the services of an encrypted phone service that they believed, allowed them to conduct their illicit business away from prying eyes. In reality, this oppose technology was the secret project of federal agents who use the tech to monitor everything from money laundering and drug trafficking to murder. Here's acting us attorney for the Southern district of California, Brandy Grossman Speaker 2: 00:38 Using these devices believe 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 Speaker 1: 00:49 Joining us. I mean, with more on this global story is Christina Davis, a federal court and criminal justice reporter for the San Diego union Tribune. Christina, welcome. Speaker 3: 00:59 Thanks for having several Speaker 1: 01:01 Hundred arrests were made yesterday by authorities across Europe and Australia. How did they know? It was time to act? Speaker 3: 01:08 We did ask that at the press conference at the us attorney's office yesterday, and they just said that it was a kind of mutually agreed upon by all of the different countries that were involved, that it was, it was time to, to bring it down. I think the countries involved, they had their own legal authorities, you know, to, to work on the case. And I think those legal authorities, you know, had to renew every so often. So I think that was also taken into consideration that when it was time to bring it down Speaker 1: 01:37 Any reason to believe that these efforts will lead to a number of arrest within the United States. Speaker 3: 01:43 I don't think so. Basically this, the steam was designed to surveil, I guess, right? The electronic communications, the messages of non us citizens who are not operating in the United States. So for the us, part of the case, there is actually a prosecution that's happening now. 17 people have been indicted in San Diego, they are all foreign nationals and that half of them were already arrested in the, in part of the sting. Um, in other countries, I think nine of them are still fugitives. So I think, you know, over the next several months, maybe we'll start seeing some of those people extra to San Diego and they, they will face charges here. Give us the Speaker 1: 02:22 Brief, a review of this operation, who were they targeting here and how many agencies were involved in getting it off the Speaker 3: 02:29 Ground? They were targeting really criminal syndicates across the world, which SI it seems like such a huge target, right. But, you know, as, as we see it actually worked. So basically there were, there were targeting all of the organized crime groups that really rely on encrypted communications to conduct their business, you know, just over regular cell phones or, you know, even some of the platforms that we might use, like WhatsApp and things like that. Uh, law enforcement is able to tap into those communications, you know, legally to some which has led to the explosion of these encrypted phone companies that really are designed for criminal activity minds, according to FBI. So they basically said let's destroy confidence in all of these encrypted platforms that the criminals are using by just creating our own. Speaker 1: 03:16 Tell us about this, um, fake communications company that you, you mentioned that authorities used to essentially Trojan horse their way back into, uh, into the back pocket of organized crime. Speaker 3: 03:26 These cases have kind of led investigators kind of into this encryption communications world. And at one point FBI agents and, um, us attorneys kind of sat around and they'd already been working with Australian authorities on some of these cases. And they said, you know, what, if we could actually do this ourselves and we could actually start the company from the ground up without anyone knowing. And so that's basically what they did. And it was, it was a pretty big effort. Um, Australia helped a lot with the technology. I'm told basically to be able to put into the, these devices, the ability to decrypt the messages and send them to law enforcement in real time. And so once they really had their arms, I think around the technology, then it was just a matter of, you know, figuring out how they were going to run a business, how they were going to make it look legitimate in the eyes of the criminal underworld. And I think they used some confidential sources and some undercover techniques to make that happen. The company was named a nom and I saw the website before it was taken offline and it looked, it looked pretty slick. Speaker 1: 04:26 How commonplace are these encrypted phone companies in global criminal operations? Speaker 3: 04:30 I think they're very commonplace at this point, but the interesting thing is a lot of them have been taken offline by Europe and Australia and the San Diego FBI was involved in some of these too, you know, Phantom secure was one of them sky global and Crow chat. So they've been going down and as these big companies go down, the users are looking for just to go into the next company to continue their business. So it'll be really interesting to see what the fallout is in the encrypted communications industry. As a result of this, Speaker 1: 04:59 This case originated in San Diego with a figure that might be familiar to some drug kingpin, Owen Hanson, where does he fit into this sting? Speaker 3: 05:08 So Owen Hanson was a Southern California guy. He played football for USC. He had some pretty high profile friends. He was kind of charismatic. He came from this background of privilege instead of really using like his degree and all of those kind of things he had going for him. He actually started, um, a sports gambling operation that was based off shore. And from there he got into drug trafficking. So the San Diego FBI started investigating him on that case. And right near the end of the operation, they actually got an undercover agent infiltrated into Hanson's inner circle and Hanson trusting. This guy gave him a F uh, an encrypted phone. And that phone ended up being, um, a Phantom secure phone and Phantom secure was encrypted communications company running out of Canada. So having that phone really allowed the San Diego FBI to go after Phantom secure in a related case. And they worked with Canada and Australia basically to do a really big operation and to shut down Phantom secure, which there were about 10,000 users. And the FBI says that pretty much all those users were using it for criminal activity. So that's kind of where this case started. You know, from there, they kind of just kept getting deeper and deeper into, into the encrypted communications business, to where we are today. It seems Speaker 1: 06:29 Hard to believe that, you know, even on an encrypted service criminals involved in global drug rings would be talking so openly about their operations. I mean, was there no attempt by these criminals to use any kind of coded language to hide their crimes? Speaker 3: 06:43 Yeah. So I asked the special agent in charge of San Diego, Suzanne Turner, this at the press conference yesterday, I asked, you know, Hey, you guys had those kind of unfettered access to all of these communications. You know, what surprised you in looking at all this? And her answer was, we were just surprised at how like bold faced and unfiltered all of their communications were. I mean, they were talking, they were sending pictures to each other about, you know, drug loads and packages, and they were talking about prices. And we're going to, we're going to put it on this ship, but this time it's going to arrive at this port. I think they were just very shocked at how much they, the criminal organizations trusted the platform to do their business. Speaker 1: 07:21 I've been speaking with Christina Davis, a federal court and criminal justice reporter for the San Diego union Tribune. Christina, thank you so much for joining us. Thank you.

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Dubbed Operation Trojan Shield, the San Diego-based FBI-led operation was centered around the creation of an encrypted phone company called ANOM.
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