I.In October 2018, the FBI turned the tables in San Diego. The investigators had previously taken a crypto service called Phantom Secure offline. The Canadian company had offered smartphones for a price of 1,500 to 2,000 dollars per half-year including service, with which one could neither make normal calls nor go online. The only function: encrypted communication. According to the FBI, the customers were exclusively members of criminal organizations. Above all, drug deals were carried out via Phantom Secure. The Mexican Sinaloa cartel is also said to have used the service.
For criminals all over the world, crypto cell phones have become the most important trump card in the eternal cat and mouse game with the security authorities over the past ten years. Above all, the international drug trade is made enormously easier by the modified cell phones. The initiation of illegal transactions, negotiations, the coordination of the transport and whatever else is necessary can also be done remotely with them, without the criminals having to meet, without having to worry about being bugged. Investigators rarely succeed in infiltrating the networks and reading the encrypted messages.
When Phantom Secure was shut down, the criminal users began looking for a new service that they could trust. And the FBI had a unique opportunity: Instead of chasing the criminals further, the agents in San Diego decided to lure them in – with their own crypto service.
Unparalleled international cooperation
On Tuesday, the investigators presented the results of their “Operation Trojan Shield”. They held several press conferences not only in San Diego, but also in Wellington in New Zealand, in Sydney and at Europol in The Hague. Calvin Shivers of the FBI spoke of an “unprecedented international cooperation”, the Deputy Director of Europol Jean-Philippe Lecouffe of “one of the largest and most sophisticated operations ever”. In raids in 15 countries, including Germany, around 800 suspects have been arrested in the past few days. Police authorities around the world seized a total of more than eight tons of cocaine, 22 tons of cannabis, two tons of synthetic drugs and about 250 firearms. FBI agent Shivers said more than 100 murder plans had been foiled over the course of the months.
The “Operation Trojan Shield” began in October 2018, still sluggish. After the head of Phantom Secure was arrested, the FBI managed to win over a man who was in the process of developing a new crypto service called Anom. At least that’s how an agent describes it in an American court document that Seamus Hughes, a researcher at George Washington University, has now made public. The informant offered the FBI not only to be able to use Anom for investigations, but also to ensure that the corresponding crypto cell phones were spread in the criminal milieu. After all, that was the crucial point: that the criminals trusted the new service so much that they would actually use it for their criminal business.