Minnesota Law

Fall 2021

Minnesota Law Alum is Architect of Major DOJ Sting

Operation Trojan Shield, overseen by Andrew Young '04 led to 800 arrests, $50M Seized

Andrew Young '04 (Photo: Tony Nelson)

From a seemingly minor case that landed on his desk on his first day as an assistant U.S. attorney in San Diego, Andrew Young ’04 helped build a three-year global sting effort—Operation Trojan Shield—that made worldwide headlines last June when authorities announced the results: 800 arrests, 36 tons of illegal drugs and nearly $50 million seized, and 150 murders prevented. 

Young was the operation’s chief architect from 2018 until September 2020, when he left his U.S. Department of Justice post to return to private practice. He joined Barnes & Thornburg’s San Diego and Minneapolis offices, where he practices civil litigation and white-collar defense and conducts internal investigations.

“I was proud of the fact that it played out largely how we had planned it would,” Young says. The operation enabled authorities in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand to “dismantle entire criminal organizations in a way that they’ve never been able to do before,” he adds. That’s because the plan Young helped forge turned the tables on transnational drug and firearms traffickers and the hardened encrypted devices that they use to hide their communications from law enforcement. 

Under Trojan Shield, the FBI worked with a contact who had approached Young about a next-level encryption technology known as ANOM. More than 12,000 devices with ANOM were sold to some 300 criminal syndicates in more than 100 countries—but they didn’t quite work as advertised. The ANOM devices secretly sent copies of more than 27 million criminal messages to a third-party country, which then sent the data to the FBI to review, translate, and forward to counterparts in other countries. 

Young’s contact offered technical expertise and, more importantly, credibility among underworld distributors and agents, who touted the ANOM devices as “designed by criminals for criminals.” Emboldened users openly negotiated drug deals, discussed money laundering, shared photos of drugs hidden in shipments of pineap- ples, bananas, and cans of tuna and—most shockingly to Young—plotted violent acts. 

“The fact that [law enforcement] stopped over 150 murders, including those of an entire family and children in Australia—I was taken aback by that,” Young says. “I knew we would seize drugs. I knew we would seize money. But what really struck me was the violence that existed and the violence they managed to stop.” 

Criminals were eager to snap up ANOM devices because, Young says, he and his colleagues in San Diego had helped shut down Phantom Secure, a Canadian firm that sold “uncrackable” devices that were advertised as impervious to decryption, wiretapping, or third-party records requests. Phantom Secure guaranteed it would destroy evidence on its devices if informants or authorities got hold of them. 

“My job was ... global strategy, framing it out and then advocating within the Justice Department to make sure that we could continue to get the resources and everything we needed.”
Andrew Young ’04

Origin of the Operation 

Young uncovered the existence of Phantom Secure while pursuing a case he received on his first day in the U.S. Attorney’s San Diego office. He joined the office in 2015 after five years as a prosecutor in the Tax Division of the DOJ in Washington, D.C., and six years in private practice at Kirkland & Ellis in Chicago. 

That case involved Owen Hanson, a former football player at the University of Southern California initially suspected of running an illegal sports gambling ring. Hanson used one phone for the gambling operation, but he had another device whose purpose was unknown.

Undercover operations eventually helped determine that Hanson’s second device was from Phantom Secure and that he used it to carry out drug deals. Young’s co-counsel on that case and on Trojan Shield was assistant U.S. attorney Meghan Heesch, a Minnesota native and Harvard Law graduate who was a clinical teaching fellow at Minnesota Law’s Detainee Rights Clinic from 2013 to 2015. 

“We put in an order for five kilos of cocaine and it was immediately delivered,” Young said. “Then we put in an order for five kilos of methamphetamine and he immediately delivered it. To have that level of access to that quantity, that fast, suggested to us that he was a much bigger deal than we thought before.” 

Undermining Criminal Confidence 

After Hanson and Phantom Secure, Young’s primary role in the operation was persuading DOJ officials to let the FBI move forward with ANOM and the Trojan Shield sting while also helping to build cases against other encryption companies. 

“My job was more global strategy, framing it out and then advocating within the Justice Department to make sure that we could continue to get the resources and everything we needed,” Young says. 

In addition to taking down existing encrypted device operators, he says, Trojan Shield undermined criminals’ confidence in any new operators that might emerge to fill the void while also disrupting their secret communications. The sting also hit the command-and-control structure of criminal organizations rather than only low-level offenders.

Another surprise, in addition to the violence planned in intercepted messages, was the number of police who were arrested as part of the sting for tipping off criminals or, in some cases, possessing ANOM devices themselves.

“There are two areas where I’ve always felt that you have to push back whenever you can, whenever you have the opportunity, and those are public corruption and organized crime,” Young says. “They’re two sides of the same coin, in my mind. If you don’t push them back at every chance you can get, they will overtake everything.” 

Todd Nelson is a Lake Elmo, Minnesota-based freelance writer.