Global drug ring busted: More than 800 arrested in 16 countries, millions seized in cryptocurrency

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Global drug ring busted: More than 800 arrested in 16 countries, millions seized in cryptocurrency
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  • Operation Trojan Shield successfully seized six tons of cocaine, five tons of cannabis, two tons of methamphetamine, and over $48 million in various currencies and cryptocurrencies.
  • At the crux of this three-year-old investigation is a messaging service called ANOM that was supposed to be secure, but actually controlled by the police.
  • Nobody knew that the ANOM was planted by law enforcement authorities and was supposed to look like any other ordinary encryption service.
  • While cryptocurrencies have created a haven for criminals, authorities are ramping up their efforts and trying new strategies to take down these syndicates.
  • While the general understanding is that cryptocurrencies offer utmost anonymity, many incidents have challenged this narrative.
Law enforcement authorities across the world joined forces on Operation Trojan Shield -- a coordinated crackdown on criminal groups. The mission was successful with the seizure of six tons of cocaine, five tons of cannabis, two tons of methamphetamine, and over $48 million in various currencies and cryptocurrencies. More than 800 criminals were arrested in 16 countries. At the crux of this three-year-old investigation is a messaging service called ANOM that was supposed to be secure, but actually controlled by the police.

Millions were seized in cryptocurrencies, and law enforcement authorities penetrated more than 300 criminal syndicates. While coordinated global raids via Interpol aren’t uncommon, this effort stands apart because it involved the breach of an app that supported encryption but was still compromised. Criminals believed they were safe, but the cops were watching their every move.

The agencies involved "carried out one of the largest and most sophisticated law enforcement operations to date in the fight against encrypted criminal activities," Jean-Philippe Lecouffe, deputy executive director of Europol, said. The agency has acknowledged that "countless spin-off operations will be carried out in the weeks to come."

What is ANOM and how did law enforcement bypass encryption?


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The FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) coordinated with the Australian Federal Police in 2019 to develop an encrypted messaging service called ANOM. Nobody knew that the ANOM was planted by law enforcement authorities and was supposed to look like any other ordinary service popular among criminals. The network developer became an informant and used their contacts to spread the word on the street.

What started as a tiny little company turned into a giant that had serviced more than 12,000 devices to 300 criminal syndicates operating in pretty much every country. The motive was to offer criminals precisely what they wanted -- an encrypted or secure device they can trust. The company was discreetly seeing every message they sent, waiting for the perfect opportunity to clamp down. With more than 27 million messages and 45,000 photos, authorities got deep insights into how they operated, all the while collecting evidence.

In 2020, authorities compromised the encryption of secure networks EncroChat and Sky ECC. It left criminals with few alternatives, and many of them joined the ANOM network. "All they talk about is drugs, violence, hits on each other, innocent people who are going to be murdered, a whole range of things," said Australian Federal Police commissioner Reece Kershaw.

Law enforcement in a decentralised world

Amidst the rise of cryptocurrencies, governments globally are concerned about abuse by criminals. Breaking modern encryption is close to impossible, and authorities struggle to get the upper hand due to its decentralised setup. It’s impossible to pinpoint a specific target, and police have close to zero jurisdiction outside their local limit. While this has created a haven for criminals, agencies are ramping up their efforts and trying new tactics to take down these syndicates.
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The Colonial Pipeline in the US was recently a cyberattack victim that took down all its systems. The attackers asked for a ransom of $4.4 million via Bitcoin, leaving authorities with no choice but to comply. Although, authorities managed to recover $2.3 million out of it due to immediate action after the incident took place.

While the general understanding is that cryptocurrencies offer utmost anonymity, many incidents have challenged this narrative. "I don't want to suggest that this is the norm, but there have been instances where we've even been able to work with our partners to identify the encryption keys, which then would enable a company to actually unlock their data — even without paying the ransom," FBI Director Christopher Wray said.

With countries like El Salvador officially adopting cryptocurrencies, the status quo is gradually changing. While the scale is negligible right now, governments have realised that they can no longer just “ban” cryptocurrencies. It’ll require a lot of effort in terms of regulations, policy, and on-ground enforcement. With criminals getting tech-savvy, it’s time governments also prepare for the future.
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