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Daily Roundup: Anom
Anom: The story of encrypted phones used by criminals
Privacy on phones is an issue (you heard that right, Mr Zuckerberg).
It’s an even bigger issue for criminals (you know, because of all the crime stuff.)
And naturally, there was a demand in the underworld market for phones (or operating systems) that could provide end-to-end encryption to its users, while also making it easier for cartels to communicate within themselves.
Now ‘Phantom Secure’ was the company that initially came up with the idea of building encrypted phones in the late 2010s.
In addition to secure texting and end-to-end encryption for organised criminals, it also came with a ‘remote kill-switch’ which meant that if compromised, the device could be completely wiped off with the click of a button.
Unfortunately (for the criminals) law enforcements soon caught on to the devices, and in 2017 the company was dissolved. This also meant that the market for illegal encrypted devices was now wide open.
Now, unlike Phantom Secure, ‘Anom’ phones were basically an application pre-installed on existing devices. The application provided secure texting to criminals, and one-upping Phantom Secure, they also came with a kill-timer.
Which meant that the phone would be wiped off simply if no activity was detected for ‘x’ no of hours.
And criminals bought these devices like hotcakes.
According to stats, there were 12000 of these devices at a single point across the globe.
Things were running smoothly in the organised crime world with the new Anom devices, until one day, on 7th June 2021, 800 arrests were made across the globe by the FBI.
Sensitive information about drug deals, goods smugglings and murders, over 27 million messages which the cartels thought were wiped off from their secure Anom devices, was used by law enforcement as evidence.
This was when the criminals found out that the company ‘Anom’ had been fabricated and run by the FBI themselves.
Operation Trojan Shield
So back in 2017 when Phantom Secure went under, law enforcement started interrogating the tech team behind the company. One such wizkid was reportedly working on the next generation of these phones.
The FBI, in exchange for a reduced sentence, asked the developer to build the ‘Anom’ devices for them. The front-end of the device would have all the functionality of encrypted phones using the Anom app, while the back-end would serve as an information pool to the FBI.
The whole setup was called Operation Trojan Shield (after the Greek myth of ‘Troy’) and went live in 2018.
But then, of course, a problem remained on how to market these devices. It’s not like criminals would flock to buy encrypted devices from just anybody.
This is when the FBI started using other criminal influencers to market ‘Anom’ devices. And one such influencer was ‘Hakan Ayik’.
Ayik was the right-hand man of the Australian drug mafia and had a huge social media presence (the times we live in). The FBI managed to get their device in his hands, and the thing just took off from there.
However, just like running any covert mission, Operation Trojan Shield came with its set of ethical dilemmas to law enforcement.
As the devices gained popularity, the FBI had backdoor access to illicit activities of more and more criminals.
This access to information proposed two choices to law enforcement: either act on immoral activities like murders, weapon smuggling or stand ground as to not compromise the operations. Both incredibly tough choices to make.
However, until the complete disclosure of the project in June 2021, Operation Trojan Shield was able to bust 300 different criminal organisations in 100 different countries.
The operation helped seize 8 tons of cocaine, 250 firearms, and more than USD 48 million in currency, dismantling 50 drug labs in the process.