FBI scores a couple of major wins against digital baddies

US law enforcement agency the FBI twice managed to trick criminals into using digital services it had access to.

Scott Bicheno

June 8, 2021

3 Min Read
data spy security hack

US law enforcement agency the FBI twice managed to trick criminals into using digital services it had access to.

In partnership with its counterpart in Australia, the Federal Bureau of Investigations created an app called ANOM, loaded it onto devices and then gave those devices to some gullible baddies, who went on to develop their nefarious schemes over the app. Then it was just a matter of logging the evidence and waiting for the right time to swoop.

“Today, Australia is a much safer country because of the extraordinary outcome under Operation Ironside,” said Australian Federal Police Commissioner Reece Kershaw. “It highlights how devastatingly-effective the AFP is when it works with local and global partners, and takes its fight against transnational organised crime offshore.

“ANOM was an influential encrypted communications app but there are even bigger encrypted platforms that are being used by transnational and serious organised criminals targeting Australia. They are almost certainly using those encrypted platforms to flood Australia with drugs, guns and undermine our economy by laundering billions of dollars of illicit profit.”

The clear inference is that the world would be a better place if security services could spy on everyone’s communications. Europol would like this too, having dined out on the consequences of hacking the EncroChat app last year. Just as it claimed credit for work done by the French that time, Europol has once more hung onto the coattails of this one, even rebranding it Operation Trojan Shield, for some reason.

“Europol coordinated the international law enforcement community, enriched the information picture and brought criminal intelligence into ongoing operations to target organised crime and drug trafficking organisations, wherever they are and however they choose to communicate,” insisted Europol’s Deputy Executive Director Jean-Philippe Lecouffe.

The whole thing seems to have mainly targeted drug dealers, with law enforcement agencies hilariously lamenting the malevolent effect of the illicit drug trade, which wouldn’t exist if drugs were legalized. On top of all the drugs they bagged, they also got hold of a bunch of cryptocurrency, which baddies presumably assume is a great way of laundering their ill-gotten gains.

One pro tip for them would appear to not use crypto accounts that the FBI has private key access to. Because that’s how it, in partnership with the US department of Justice, managed to retrieve the $2.3 million of bitcoin paid as a ransom to cyber criminals DarkSide following their ransomware extortion of US utility Colonial Pipeline.

“There is no place beyond the reach of the FBI to conceal illicit funds that will prevent us from imposing risk and consequences upon malicious cyber actors,” said FBI Deputy Director Paul Abbate. “We will continue to use all of our available resources and leverage our domestic and international partnerships to disrupt ransomware attacks and protect our private sector partners and the American public.”

While its good news that law enforcement agencies are raising their game in tackling digital criminals, each victory seems to strengthen calls for them to be given more power. It seems inevitable that soon everyone will have their electronic activities subjected to a level of surveillance we associated only with authoritarian countries like China until recently. That’s a heavy price to pay.

About the Author(s)

Scott Bicheno

As the Editorial Director of Telecoms.com, Scott oversees all editorial activity on the site and also manages the Telecoms.com Intelligence arm, which focuses on analysis and bespoke content.
Scott has been covering the mobile phone and broader technology industries for over ten years. Prior to Telecoms.com Scott was the primary smartphone specialist at industry analyst Strategy Analytics’. Before that Scott was a technology journalist, covering the PC and telecoms sectors from a business perspective.
Follow him @scottbicheno

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