Three years ago, the FBI began planning a sophisticated sting that led to the arrests of 800 suspected organized criminals in raids around the world.
Police this week carried out hundreds of searches, seized drugs, firearms, luxury vehicles, and cash in coordinated operations across multiple countries.
The targets were organized crime groups that had placed their trust in an encrypted phone application called An0m to arrange drug deals, kidnappings, and assassinations.
An informer working for the FBI sold An0m Android phones on the black market, claiming it offered users highly secure encrypted messaging services.
More than 9,000 encrypted devices were in circulation when law enforcement agencies pulled the plug on the network on 7 June 2021.
The FBI operation, codenamed Trojan Shield, has its origins in 2017 when the FBI office in San Diego began investigating the Canadian crypto phone company Phantom Secure.
The investigation revealed that Phantom Secure, run by Vincent Ramos, supplied secure BlackBerry devices to criminal organizations, offering criminals secure communications that law enforcement could not intercept.
The FBI arrested Ramos in March 2018 in operation with the Australian Federal Police and the Canadian Mounties.
The takedown left a gap in the market for encrypted phones, particularly in Australia, where an estimated 14,000 users of Phantom Secure were involved in drug imports and money laundering.
The idea, said Suzanne Turner, the FBI special agent responsible for the San Diego field office, was to create a new encrypted phone network to compete with others, such as Sky ECC and EncroChat, used by criminal groups.
“Realising the marketplace is a small, close-knit community, the investigative team came up with an innovative solution to exploit the criminal organizations’ vulnerabilities, which was to create our closed encrypted platform to offer the criminal organizations a Trojan horse of sorts,” she told a press conference.