Hundreds arrested in 'staggering' Federal Bureau of Investigation encrypted phone sting

Ruben Fields
June 9, 2021

In a pattern that was repeated elsewhere, Australian Underworld figures began distributing phones, including apps, to their peers.

The unprecedented worldwide effort, dubbed Operation Trojan Shield, is the final showpiece in a string of investigations that originated in San Diego, starting with the case of unlikely drug kingpin Owen Hanson.

Europol said that the FBI has been working with Australian Federal Police since 2019 to develop an encrypted device company called ANOM.

More than 800 suspects have been arrested, 32 tons of drugs seized and $148 million confiscated in a massive global organized crime investigation, law enforcement authorities said Tuesday. "The results are staggering".

"Today marks a culmination of more than five years of strategic, innovative, complex investigative work to disrupt and dismantle encrypted communication services that cater to the criminal element across the globe", said Suzanne Turner, special agent in charge of the San Diego FBI field office.

"This information led over the last week to hundreds of law enforcement operations on a global scale from New Zealand to Australia to Europe and the United States of America, with impressive results", Jean-Philippe Lecouffe, Deputy Director Operations at Europol, told a press conference.

With the seed of an idea, USA law enforcement and Australian Federal Police hammered out logistical, technical and bureaucratic challenges over meals and beer, according to a source close to the investigation.

Law enforcement agencies took down two encrypted platforms, EncroChat and Sky ECC, that crime syndicates had been using.

"As part of this, the NCA has conducted multiple operations targeting organised crime groups involved in drug trafficking and money laundering".

The FBI had just what they needed.

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Users trusted the devices' security so much that they often laid out their plans not in code, but in plain language, mentioning specific smuggling vessels and drop-off points.

The FBI's Shivers said this enabled them to "turn the tables" on criminals. The post was later deleted.

"There was a void that was created by a lack of these encrypted platforms", said Calvin Shivers of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Agencies not only developed a tool but also developed a process of gathering and sharing intelligence. "All they talk about is drugs, violence, hits on each other, innocent people who are going to be murdered". CEO Vincent Ramos pleaded guilty in 2018 to conspiring with drug traffickers and was sentenced to nine years behind bars and had $80M in assets seized. "And it helped prevent a number of crimes", Shivers said.

Organized criminal groups selling encrypted phones that law enforcement officials can monitor have led to the arrest of more than 800 people in 18 countries, officials said Tuesday.

Authorities have also seized more than 8 tons of cocaine, with 22 tons of cannabis and several tons of other drugs, along with "55 luxury vehicles and over $48 million in various worldwide currencies and cryptocurrencies", the European law enforcement agency Europol says.

The global police sting - involving 16 countries - has resulted in the arrest of senior gang members in New Zealand, Australia and other countries.

German police detained more than 70 suspects and searched over 150 locations in Germany as a part of the global crackdown.

"The criminals should be on notice that law enforcement and partnerships all over the world are resolute in their dedication to collaboration and to continue to evolve our capabilities", Mr Russo said.

The compromised "AN0M" devices reached suspected criminals in 90 countries, who unwittingly blind copied - or "BBCed" - police on around 20 million messages.

AFP provided the technical staff for Operation Ironside, which started three years ago after a similar take-down of encrypted communications provider Phantom Secure, federal police said.

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