Cyber Security

FBI Issued Encrypted Devices to Capture Criminals

A sting operation delivered devices into the hands of global criminals and used the intelligence gathered to stop drug crimes.

The FBI this week detailed the results of a years-long sting operation that centered around issuing encrypted devices – normally used for conducting secretive illegal activity – directly into criminal hands.

In an effort called Operation Trojan Shield, the FBI worked with Australian Federal Police and several other international agencies to launch an encrypted communications platform and supply more than 12,000 devices to hundreds of criminal organizations around the world. The sting resulted in the arrests of hundreds of alleged criminals in Australia and across Europe, officials report. 

The devices that were distributed are typically purchased by criminals through word-of-mouth referral networks and offer data encryption tools. They can also be wiped clean remotely if they fall into the hands of law enforcement. These devices often sell for $1,200 to $2,000 USD and are “designed for maximum secrecy and to avoid court-authorized access needed by law enforcement,” according to the FBI.

“The FBI’s San Diego Field Office was the hub for the more than 100 agents and analysts and 80 linguists who were pooled together for the operation that began with the takedown of the encrypted phone provider Phantom Secure,” FBI officials said in a statement.

In 2018, officials charged Phantom Secure executives for facilitating narcotics trafficking by providing encrypted devices to criminals. After the device provider shuttered, officials then seized on the gap in the market among criminals who buy these devices and launched their own operation. The network of FBI-issued devices allowed officials to insert a master key into each device to decrypt and store messages as they were transmitted.

These devices generated a carbon copy of each message for the FBI to assess and analyze. The FBI then sent information to partner agencies and were able to seize thousands of kilograms of narcotics, and millions of dollars from criminal activity, because of the information gleaned from the devices.

“Encrypted devices have been and continue to be a safe haven for criminal organizations, in particular the leadership of these organizations—providing them a platform for their communications that we have not had access to,” said FBI San Diego Assistant Special Agent in Charge Jamie Arnold in a statement. 

“For the agents on the investigative team and our federal and international partners, this was a creative and innovative way for us to get behind that firewall and see what was happening among the leadership of these criminal organizations.”

More details on the operation can be found here

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