ANOM Operation Ironside

Feroze Ashraff
December 1, 2021

Concept – Operation Trojan Shield / Operation Ironside / Operation Greenlight:

  • The FBI began operating an encrypted device network called ANOM, and covertly distributed devices (phones) with the chat app among the criminal underworld via informants.
  • The idea for the operation came after two other encrypted platforms (Phantom Secure & Sky Global) were taken down by law enforcement agencies, leaving criminal gangs in the market for new secure phones.  

Method of distribution:

  • About 50 devices were distributed in Australia for beta testing from October 2018.
  • Use of the app spread through word of mouth and was also encouraged by undercover agents.
  • The FBI recruited a confidential human source, who had previously sold phones from both Phantom Secure and Sky Global to criminal organizations and had "invested a substantial amount of money into the development of a new hardened encrypted device" (i.e., ANoM), to penetrate the crime networks and distribute the devices.
  • The devices were initially used by alleged senior crime figures, giving other criminals the confidence to use the platform.

Details about the Phone:

  • Encrypted phones that secretly allowed law enforcement agencies to access messsages  
  • Following services were disabled on the phone - email, call and GPS.
  • Offered only messaging with other AN0M phones  
  • Each new device required an access code from an existing user  
  • Distributed through black market, for around $2,000  
  • Around 12,000 devices distributed in over 100 countries  

Method of Compromise:

  • Phones sent a BCC of all messages to servers controlled by the FBI (MitM – Man in the Middle attack)
  • FBI then used the private key to decrypt the message.

Result:

  • Around 20 million messages from suspected criminals intercepted  
  • Most devices used were in Australia, Spain, Germany and the Netherlands.
  • The seized evidence included almost 40 tons of drugs, 250 guns, 55 luxury cars and more than $48 million in various currencies and cryptocurrencies.  
  • In Australia, 224 people were arrested on 526 total charges.
  • In New Zealand, 35 people were arrested and faced a total of 900 charges. Police seized $3.7 million in assets, including 14 vehicles, drugs, firearms and more than $1 million in cash.  
  • No arrests were made in the United States because of privacy laws that prevented law enforcement from collecting messages from domestic subjects.

Summary:

  • While cryptographic algorithms are still one of the best methods to encrypt your data and communication (and directly attacking the algo takes time and computing power), there are many other methods that can be used to compromise your data.
  • The weakest link in most (if not all) systems is the human factor
  • Legislation and laws are not consistent among different countries that sometimes creates loopholes that criminals can exploit.