Users of a communications network called Anom thought their messages were encrypted and secure from prying eyes. Instead, law enforcement officials said Tuesday, their messages were secretly being copied to the FBI.
As a result, more than 800 people were arrested in a series of raids around the world. And more than 30 tons of drugs, and $48 million in currency and cryptocurrency, were seized, according to a statement from Europol. Australian police said they acted on 20 “threats to kill” people.
The Anom network relied on modified smartphones that, according to The New York Times, only supported communications through an Anom messaging app. The app was accessible by entering a password into what appeared to be a calculator tool.
But Anom was, in fact, under the control of the FBI since 2019. After international police agencies took down a Canadian company called Phantom Secure that provided similar encryption devices that officials said were used by drug smuggling and organized crime groups, a Phantom Secure distributor agreed to cooperate with the FBI for the chance at a reduced sentence, according to court records. Such devices typically sell for between $1,200 and $2,000, according to the FBI, and can allow messages to be wiped remotely if their owners are arrested.
The Phantom distributor, who isn’t named in legal documents, was already working on building what became Anom and agreed to give the FBI access and offer Anom to his existing customers and contacts. He’s also been paid for his work with the FBI. Interest in such devices typically spreads by word of mouth, and Anom ultimately saw more than 12,000 devices distributed around the world, according to Europol. Communications outside the United States through Anom were secretly copied to an FBI server, according to court records. The court records also include photos and details of drugs sent through the app, including some hidden in tuna cans, shipments of bananas, diplomatic pouches, and hollowed-out pineapples that were seized as a result of the eavesdropping.
In requesting a search warrant, an FBI agent wrote that he believes Anom was used exclusively for criminal activity:
“Based on my familiarity with [the FBI’s] review of content from all international Anom users and my experience investigating transnational criminal organizations, I believe that Anom devices are used exclusively to openly discuss criminal schemes or to maintain relationships in furtherance of those schemes.”
While specialized encrypted phones are generally a more niche product, encrypted communications are widely used: WhatsApp, the popular messaging program owned by Facebook, promotes its use of end-to-end encryption that means only the sender and recipient of a message can see it. Other encrypted apps, like Signal, have proven popular with a wide range of users and frequently appear in requests from journalists for sources to reach out with potentially confidential information.
Earlier this year, the Justice Department indicted Jean-Francois Eap, the CEO of Sky Global, another Canadian firm that made modified encrypted phones and operated a secure communications network. Prosecutors alleged he knowingly facilitated drug smuggling. Eap denied the allegations.
“It was not created to prevent the police from monitoring criminal organizations; it exists to prevent anyone from monitoring and spying on the global community,” he said in a statement at the time. “The indictment against me personally in the United States is an example of the police and the government trying to vilify anyone who takes a stance against unwarranted surveillance.”
Sky shut down and law enforcement seized its domain names. Shutting down Sky helped push some users to Anom, where unbeknownst to them, their communications could be monitored, according to Europol.
“Criminal groups using encrypted communications to thwart law enforcement should no longer feel safe in that space,” said FBI San Diego Assistant Special Agent in Charge Jamie Arnold in a statement Tuesday. “We hope criminals worldwide will fear that the FBI or another law enforcement organization may, in fact, be running their platform.”