A massive international operation against organized crime has led to the arrests of more than 800 people in 17 countries after agents managed to decrypt communications between suspects who unknowingly used phones distributed by the FBI, the US federal police.
In a press conference on Tuesday (8), the deputy director of operations of Europol, Jean Philippe Lecouffe, said that the hundreds of arrests occurred during searches in more than 700 places in countries like New Zealand, Australia, United States, Germany , Italy, Sweden and the Netherlands.
US$ 48 million (R$ 242 million) in cash and cryptocurrencies, more than eight tons of cocaine, 22 tons of marijuana, two tons of synthetic drugs, 250 weapons and 55 luxury cars were also seized. From 27 million messages from more than 12,000 devices in 100 countries, details of the criminal activities of more than 300 organized groups were uncovered, including the Italian mafia, the Asian triads and transnational drug trafficking gangs.
Operation Trojan Shield began in 2018 and involved around 9,000 police officers. That year, the FBI offered a former drug dealer who was also a smartphone software developer the opportunity to have his sentence reduced and $100,000 (R$504,000 at current rates) to cover expenses. Details of the operation were disclosed this Monday on the website of the American magazine Vice.
The informant had been arrested in the context of another operation in which authorities dismantled a network of encrypted smartphones known as Phantom Secure. For at least a decade criminals have used the phones to plan drug trafficking, attacks on rivals and money laundering. The system allowed the content of the devices to be remotely erased in case of seizure.
When they went out of circulation, the FBI decided to launch its own smartphone, called Anom, infiltrating a feature that would allow agents to decrypt and store each message as it was transmitted. Also in 2018, Australian federal police investigators and analysts met with the FBI. “As you know, some of the best ideas come with a few beers,” Australian agency commissioner Reece Kershaw said Tuesday.
The developer-turned-informant accepted the FBI’s offer and contacted his former suppliers, who were looking to increase the operation in Australia and bought 50 Anom cell phones. The devices were used, according to Australian police, for criminal activities in 100% of cases.
The cell phones, which were purchased in the underground market for about US$2,000 (R$10.1 thousand), had no email, did not make regular calls or were connected to GPS systems. In addition, a code sent by another Anom device was required, so anyone wanting to use the phone would need to know another user in advance. “The devices circulated organically and became popular with criminals, who trusted the app’s legitimacy because recognized organized crime figures defended it,” Australian police said in a statement.
According to Kershaw, criminals walked “with the federal police in their pockets” and used the phones without moderation, without resorting to code words and sharing photos of large drug shipments and details of how they would be transported. In Australia alone, at least 21 assassination plans were stopped thanks to Anom. In total, according to the FBI, more than 100 lives under threat were saved.
Due to legal and technological limitations, the FBI was unable to directly monitor the devices on Australian territory. In late 2019, however, a court order issued by the country that hosts the phone servers and that was not identified by authorities gave US agents greater possibilities to access monitored content.
The court order, however, expired on Monday (7), putting an end to the criminal intelligence operation through the telephones and, therefore, the feats of Operation Trojan Shield were released on Tuesday.