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FBI used encrypted Anom app in international crime bust

The FBI secretly ran an encrypted chat network that included 12,000 devices and was widely used by criminal organizations across the globe for various illegal dealings.

The FBI is celebrating a massive bust stemming from the global takedown of a popular encrypted chat network.

Known as Anom, the encrypted chat network marketed itself to criminals as a service where communications were shielded from the prying eyes of law enforcement. In fact, the network was operated by law enforcement in the U.S., Europe and Oceania as an organized effort to round up criminals.

Anom was first seized by the police in 2018 following the takedown of encrypted phone provider Phantom Secure. Having seized the network in its infancy, law enforcement opted to let it run for several years and gather a network of what it says are hundreds of organized crime outfits. While users thought their conversations were secure, law enforcement was able to view and log all communications.

At the time of dismantling, the police-run Anom network had around 12,000 devices used by criminals, according to the Department of Justice. At its peak, Anom was the preferred communications method for what the FBI reckoned to be more than 300 organized crime outfits, including what the government called "Italian organized crime, Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, and various international drug trafficking organizations."

The total tally of illicit goods seized in the bust, dubbed "Operation Trojan Shield," is staggering: eight tons of cocaine, 22 tons of marijuana, two tons of methamphetamines, and negligible amounts of firearms and various narcotics ingredients.

While the government has long been against apps and services that provide encrypted communications, in this case an exception was made, as Anom was rigged to allow law enforcement the ability to eavesdrop on communications. The irony of the situation was not lost on law enforcement, which noted their advantageous position.

"This was an unprecedented operation in terms of its massive scale, innovative strategy and technological and investigative achievement," said Randy Grossman, acting U.S. Attorney, in a DOJ statement. "Hardened encrypted devices usually provide an impenetrable shield against law enforcement surveillance and detection. The supreme irony here is that the very devices that these criminals were using to hide from law enforcement were actually beacons for law enforcement."

In addition to the FBI and DOJ, the international operation (also known as Operation Ironside) included Australian Federal Police, Interpol, and local police in the Netherlands, Lithuania and Sweden.

"Operation Ironside began almost three years ago and is the Australian component of a long-term, international, covert investigation. The FBI and AFP targeted the dedicated encrypted communications platform, which was used exclusively by organized crime," the AFP said in an announcement. "After working in close partnership on Operation Safe Cracking to take down the encrypted platform provider Phantom Secure, the AFP and FBI worked together to fill the vacuum."

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