16 Operation Trojan Shield
For outsmarting some of the world’s most sophisticated criminals with a simple app
In the age of digital disruption, even criminal networks have turned to encrypted messaging services to hide their activities from authorities. So a team of top law enforcement agencies around the world created their own undercover communication app—and duped drug traffickers and mobsters into using it. Over the course of 18 months, the global high-tech sting decoded all their secrets and snared hundreds of organized crime syndicates.
Operation Trojan Shield was led by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) along with Europol, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the Dutch National Police, the Swedish Police Authority, and law enforcement groups in 13 other countries. Together, they were able to install the messaging app, called ANOM, on at least 12,000 mobile devices distributed to criminal groups on the black market.
The app allowed the team to monitor communications and capture data, culminating in a two-day takedown in June 2021. After police arrested more than 800 suspects in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and the United States, Europol called it “one of the largest and most sophisticated law-enforcement operations to date in the fight against encrypted criminal activities.”
But there might be more to come. Although the team disabled ANOM after Trojan Shield ended, Europol said it’s still investigating messages on the app for other potential crimes.
“Encrypted criminal communications platforms have traditionally been a tool to evade law enforcement and facilitate transnational organized crime,” said Calvin A. Shivers, the FBI’s assistant director, criminal investigative division. “The FBI and our international partners continue to push the envelope and develop innovative ways to overcome these challenges and bring criminals to justice.”
Laying the Trap
The seeds for ANOM are sowed after an FBI operation shuts down Phantom Secure. The Canadian company had built a secure communications network used by high-level drug traffickers and leaders of other criminal organizations to text about all sorts of nefarious business. The FBI subsequently recruits an informant with ties to Phantom Secure to help commandeer a next-gen encryption device being developed, which is transformed into ANOM. U.S. and Australian agencies and the insider source build a master key that allows law enforcement to eavesdrop on every message sent through the platform.
As Operation Trojan Shield officially commences, criminals around the world begin to take the ANOM app bait. The FBI’s Phantom Secure informant leverages existing relationships with trusted distributors to spread the word—and use of the app. Authorities eventually scale the Australia-based ANOM network to outlaws in more than 100 countries.
Authorities in France and the Netherlands shut down EncroChat, another encrypted communications platform popular among the transnational criminal crowd. As criminals flock to ANOM, the app’s global user base eventually grows to more than 12,000.
To track the flood of communication across the app, a team of more than 100 FBI agents and analysts works alongside 80 linguists to extract actionable intelligence from text and voice messages, photos and other digital information—which they share with partner agencies in other countries.
Operation Trojan Shield culminates with police in 16 countries—Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Lithuania, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Norway, Scotland, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States—coordinating arrests of hundreds of individuals who had used ANOM. Their alleged crimes ranged from drug trafficking to money laundering. Over the course of just two days, authorities seize stashes of drugs, firearms and funds—including cocaine concealed in shipments of pineapples and bananas.