Operation Trojan Shield
When you hear Operation Trojan Shield, do you think of the wooden horse that the Greeks used to infiltrate Troy or a massive condom attempting to break a Guinness world record? How about the FBI’s coordinated plan with Australia that intercepted over 20 million messages from criminals through their own developed and operated encrypted device company called Anom? The Trojan Shield’s operation, although resembling a sexual innuendo, was anything but a quickie as the long-lasting operation of 3 years has erected a change in pace for trust in encryption technology by criminals on an international scale.
The effort to infiltrate encrypted mediums for encryption first saw success during April of 2020 when the European police had hacked into Encrochat, an encrypted communications network utilized to generally organize and coordinate illegal activities. Although the legality of the operation and seizure of information is questionable, it did not deter other countries from pursuing similar operations. The United States had joined in on the trend during 2018, “when the FBI shut down a messaging service for crooks” (Marks, 2021) known as Phantom Secure that was used by drug gangs, like Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel. Phantom Secure was essentially a smartphone that did not possess its typical functions, but rather an “encrypted email system that could only communicate with other devices they’d doctored.”
After Phantom Secure was dismantled, “the FBI recruited a former Phantom Secure distributor who had developed a new encrypted communications system called Anom” (Zhuang et al. 2021). Similar to Phantom Secure, Anom devices did not possess normal functions but rather just a calculator app that when a code was entered, it would allow the individual to send and receive fully encrypted messages and pictures, but these messages would also be sent to the U.S. This is possible due to the collaboration of the FBI, Australian authorities, and the FBI which produced a “master key” that rerouted more than 27 million messages to a third party country for it to be decrypted.
On June 8th, 2021 “global law enforcement officials revealed the unprecedented scope of the three-year operation, saying they had intercepted over 20 million messages in 45 languages, and arrested at least 800 people, most of them in two days, in more than a dozen countries” (Zhuang et al. 2021). The operation was initially created in the attempts to overcome the various barriers law enforcement has faced when confronting the high level of encryption criminals have been utilizing. The overall operation shed some light on the underground black market that exists within the international community and provided a greater insight into the operations that were occurring. Abstract methods such as smuggling cocaine through “filling pineapples and cans of tuna” to “adding drugs to diplomatic packages” (Chappel, 2021) were all discovered through the decryption of messages sent within Anom. The deceitful “honeypot trap” (Murphy, 2021) that involved over 17 countries’ law enforcement not led to a large exposure of illegal operations but it made the trust in encrypted devices fragile. With Anom exposing violent planned crimes, concealment and illegal sales of narcotics, money laundering, etc. criminals will have to do a double-take on the medium they use to communicate.
The operation was revealed on June 8th, 2021 for two primary reasons: to stop immediate threats and because “their wiretap authorizations were coming up for renewal” (Zhuang et al. 2021). The intel departments concluded that they had discovered enough impactful evidence and to prevent serious crimes detected through the decryption of text messages, they would need to release the information with sufficient response time to evaluate, address, and prevent the crimes from occurring. The New York Times reports in their article “Global F.B.I. Sting Nets 800 Arrests With Help of a Hidden App,” that within a few days of the operation being released, over 700 houses were searched, corrupt law-enforcement officers were arrested, 350 firearms were seized, as well as 55 luxury vehicles and $48 million in several currencies and cryptocurrencies.
Although this isn’t the condom operation that the U.S. sought to lower the morale of the Soviets, it definitely maintains the intended psychological warfare and manifestation of distrust in encrypted software. As wonderful as the results are for the operation, it is important to address the raised question of, “Is it legal?” This is important as the information gathered from the operation is essentially a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Wiretap Act which most likely prompted the U.S. to work with countries that maintained less “privacy protective laws to launder its surveillance” (Murphy, 2021). It does make you wonder how many innocent people were caught in the crossfire of the operation because it is not too far-fetched that businesses would want similar devices to keep their information secure. Although it is not clear how the legality of the operation will function within the United States, the international community has utilized a multilateral operation to effectively deter criminals from utilizing encrypted software and crippling their trust in communicative mediums.
Chappell Bill, Drugs’ Ring Favorite NewEncrypted Platform Had One Flaw; The FBI Controlled It, NPR, June 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/06/08/1004332551/drug-rings-platform-operation-trojan-shield-anom-operation-greenlight
Marks Andrea, How the FBII Tricked Criminals into Using its Messaging App, Rolling Stone, June, 2021, https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-news/fbi-operation-trojan-shield-crime-messaging-app-1181168/
Murphy Hannah, How the FBI’s Trojan Shield operation exposed a criminal underworld, Federal Bureau of Investigation, June 2021, https://www.ft.com/content/65ed6eb5-4968-4636-99bc-27a516d089dd
U.S. Attorney’s Office Southern District of California, FBI’s Encrypted Phone Platform Infiltrated Hundreds of Criminal Syndicates; Result is Massive Worldwide Takedown,United States Department of Justice, June 2021, https://www.justice.gov/usao-sdca/pr/fbi-s-encrypted-phone-platform-infiltrated-hundreds-criminal-syndicates-result-massive
Zhuang Yan et al. Global F.B.I. Sting Nets 800 Arrests With Help of a Hidden App, New York Times, June 2021, A6, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/08/world/australia/operation-trojan-horse-anom.html