Technology

How the FBI infiltrated Anom encrypted messaging to stop criminal networks

The Australian Federal Police announced on June 8 that several hundred criminals had been arrested in Australia and Europe thanks to an international operation dubbed “Ironside”. Operation carried out by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in the United States, the New Zealand Police, the Dutch National Police (Politie) and the Swedish Police Authority (Polisen) as well as ‘Europol participated.

In total, 800 people were arrested and 8 tons of cocaine, 22 tons of cannabis, 8 tons of synthetic drugs, 250 firearms, 55 luxury vehicles and more than 48 million dollars were seized thanks to this particular operation. “sophisticated”, according to Europol.

The FBI siphoned off cryptophones

The success of this punching operation is based in part on the use of an encrypted messaging platform, dubbed “Anom”, through which more than 27 million messages exchanged between suspects belonging to 300 criminal groups were discreetly intercepted. between 2019 and 2021 by the FBI.

You have to go back a few years to understand the strategy put in place by the Australian police and operated by the American federal judicial police service. In 2018, Vincent Ramos, CEO of Phantom Secure, was arrested in Bellingham in the United States for having provided cryptophones, that is to say ultra secure phones allowing criminals to exchange without risking that the police intercept them. messages. These smartphones would have allowed the distribution of at least 300 kilograms of cocaine, 5 kilograms of methamphetamine and 24 kilograms of MDMA between 2015 and 2017, according to the indictment of the FBI.

Following the arrest, an anonymous informant, who had previously sold Phantom Secures, told the FBI and Australian police that he was developing a new encrypted messaging system. In exchange for a reduced sentence, he offered to take over this system and then sell these new phones on the black market, thus giving credibility to the future system.

Anom was installed on more than 12,000 phones

The Anom application has thus been installed on more than 12,000 devices. They could only do three things: send and receive messages, make voice calls with distorted voices, and record videos. All in a fully encrypted way so that only the owners of these phones can see these messages. It was without counting on the FBI which inserted a back door in the system to discreetly siphon the contents of the exchanges.

Based on information from The Verge, most of Anom’s first users were in Australia, then the network expanded to 90 countries. Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and Serbia had the highest number of users. Use of this platform exploded in early 2021 when law enforcement shut down the Sky Global site, which was selling encrypted phones.

Force backdoor integration?

This is not the first time that authorities have used this strategy to block criminal networks. The integration of backdoors in messaging is regularly debated. The FBI has made this its hobbyhorse and has long asked Apple to abandon end-to-end encryption because this would hamper the proper conduct of police investigations since it cannot access the exchanged content.

The subject is also debated at European level. The Council of Ministers of the European Union would like to force secure messaging services, such as WhatsApp or Signal, to allow intelligence services to access encrypted holdings through backdoors. Which, according to the companies concerned, would be an invasion of the privacy of Internet users.

However, the prohibition of data encryption is not a miracle solution to avoid the commission of serious acts. In fact, criminals have adapted and redouble their imagination to exchange outside the traditional channels of communication. For example, Osama Bin Laden, the sponsor of the September 11, 2001 attacks, relied exclusively on human messengers to avoid being tracked by the NSA and its European counterparts.

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