A covert police operation successfully tricked illegal groups into buying cellphones, containing messaging software that authorities constantly monitored.

Operation Trojan Shield arrested at least 800 suspects, thwarted some 100 assassination attempts, and seized more than 32 tons of drugs plus $148 million in cash.

These busts were thanks to a joint operation between the FBI, Australian Federal Police (AFP), and law enforcement officers from New Zealand, Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands. Namely, authorities convinced criminal organizations to purchase mobile handsets on the black market because they came with the ANOM encrypted chat application.

Suspects thought they were paying for a more secure messaging service. However, investigators were able to decode and read all of their private conversations. This provided police officers with valuable intelligence, photos and other forms of evidence to fight crime.

“This was an unprecedented operation in terms of its massive scale, innovative strategy and technological and investigative achievement,” Acting U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman from the Southern District of California said in a statement.

The app was so successful that suspects began recommending it to several criminal contacts. Word of mouth quickly spread, causing the location of users to reach 100 countries around the world. This resulted in the sale of about 12,000 devices and examination of some 27 million messages.

“The supreme irony here is that the very devices that these criminals were using to hide from law enforcement were actually beacons for law enforcement,” Grossman said. “We aim to shatter any confidence in the hardened encrypted device industry with our indictment and announcement that this platform was run by the FBI.”

How the idea hatched

In 2020, European security forces successfully disrupted major apps EncroChat and Sky ECC, which criminal organizations had allegedly used to traffic drugs and plan robberies.

Agents from the FBI and AFP thought it would be a great idea to design a new app and install it on cell phones sold on the black market. This would theoretically give suspects the means to unknowingly provide authorities with incriminating text messages, imagery, and audio that could later be used against them in court.

“To give you an idea of the magnitude of our penetration, we were able to actually see photographs of hundreds of tons of cocaine that were concealed in shipments of fruit,” Calvin Shivers, assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division said according to the New York Post.

Suspects sent each other chat messages containing information about drug trafficking and photos of drugs hidden in crates of pineapples, bananas, cans of tuna, and other everyday products.

“We were able to see hundreds of kilos of cocaine that were concealed in canned goods,” Shivers said.

Investigators in Europe, Australia and the United States recently made more than 500 arrests and searched more than 700 locations as part of the operation. Fifty-five luxury cars and some 250 firearms were also seized and believed to be bought with drug money.

Most of the arrests occurred in Germany, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States.

AFP Commissioner Reece Kershaw confirmed this includes members of “outlaw motorcycle gangs, Australian mafia, Asian crime syndicates, and serious and organized crime groups.” They are suspected of trafficking drugs at an “industrial scale” to the Land Down Under.

The operation did not manage to catch fugitive drug trafficker Hakan Ayik who is still on the loose in Turkey.

Nevertheless, Deakin University counter-terrorism professor Greg Barton still describes Operation Trojan Shield as a shining example of fighting organized crime with social engineering.

“Australian police authorities and their counterparts around the world will have gathered more insight into the workings of organized criminals and suspended their operations for a period of time,” he told the Financial Times. “These are important temporary victories in endless ‘cat and mouse’ fights with criminals.”