The FBI Secretly Launched an Encrypted Messaging System for Criminals


An encrypted telephone service called Anom was secretly operated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in a years-long international sting operation. Law enforcement agencies across Europe, the US and Oceania revealed Anom’s origins earlier today and said they had arrested 800 criminal suspects based on intercepted communications.

According to public statements, the FBI and other agencies seeded Anom secure phones with suspected crime syndicates, gradually building a network totaling about 12,000 (and 9,000 active) devices. The phones secretly transferred 27 million messages between 2019 and 2021, resulting in Operation Greenlight/Trojan Shield – a large-scale raid involving approximately eight tons of cocaine, 22 tons of cannabis and cannabis resin, 250 firearms and $48 million in traditional currencies and cryptocurrencies. .

Seamus Hughes, a George Washington University researcher, offered more details of: court documents. As vice reported based on the work of Hughes, Anom started in 2018 after the police shut down Phantom Secure, an encrypted device network primarily used (according to the FBI, exclusively) by drug traffickers and other organized criminals. An unnamed informant, who had previously sold Phantom Secure phones, told the FBI they were building a next-generation encrypted device called Anom. The informant offered the system to the FBI and the Australian Federal Police in exchange for a reduced sentence for criminal charges, and then agreed to sell Anom phones to their existing organized crime distribution network, giving the new system became credible.

Unbeknownst to buyers, each Anom message contained a “master key” that would allow law enforcement to decrypt the content, and each device associated a fixed ID number with each username the owner chose. The messages were secretly forwarded to servers to which the FBI — as well as the AFP and later other law enforcement agencies — had access. A court file cites examples of these messages, including photos of cocaine packages and conversations about drug shipments smuggling.

Most early Anom users were in Australia. But the network eventually covered 90 countries, with Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Australia and Serbia seeing the most users. Growth picked up sharply in early 2021, when law enforcement shut down Sky Global, another encrypted messaging company. A Europol press release says 300 criminal syndicates used Anom devices, including “Italian organized crime, banned motorcycle gangs and international drug trafficking organizations.”

In addition to direct busts made with Anom data, the FBI described Anom as a step to “shake trust in this entire industry” of encrypted device services. The police have tried to plant back doors both for general purpose and specifically targeting crime messaging services, and they have hijacked platforms like dark web marketplaces to catch illegal activity – but it’s rarer to see an agency help launch a brand new phone network for this purpose.