Trojan Shield: FBI created message service for criminals to ensnare them

Over the course of 48 hours, law enforcement agencies in 16 countries arrested more than 800 suspected criminals and seized 64,000 pounds of drugs, hundreds of guns and $150 million as part of a three-year operation run by the FBI that identified more than 300 criminal enterprises around the globe and learned of their plans to launder money, sell drugs and kill people thanks to an encrypted messaging app built, distributed and monitored by the FBI and one of its informants.

"The very devices that the criminals used to hide their crimes were actually a beacon for law enforcement," U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California Randy Grossman said.

Grossman revealed, Tuesday, how Operation Trojan Shield recruited a former distributor of a recently shut-down criminal communication network who'd developed a new encrypted messaging app called ANOM. With ANOM under FBI control, the FBI sent its new informant to sell ANOM phones to distributors all around the world.

"ANOM distributors, administrators and agents had so much confidence in the secrecy of their devices," Grossman said, "that they openly marketed them to other potential users, as 'designed by criminals, for criminals.'"

In three years, the FBI sold more than 12,000 of its spying devices to crime rings in more than 100 countries and then, with a still-growing archive of more than 20 million messages sent through ANOM, the bureau contacted law enforcement agencies around the world with the evidence they needed to arrest the bad guys.

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"This was a massively successful operation," John Jay College Assistant Professor of Public Policy Adam Scott Wandt said.

Wandt, who teaches a graduate course in the interception of private communications, expects this new crime-fighting technique so successfully devised and employed by the FBI might work in its current form just this once.

"Now that criminals know the FBI uses techniques like this, they're going to change their operation going forward," he said. And the FBI is going to have to adapt new techniques to fight the future of crime."