/ 09 June 2021

The messaging app with a savage sting

The patience and tech skills of the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and America’s Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) paid off yesterday. The Aussie end of the sting was named Operation Ironside, and it yesterday resulted in the arrests of 200 people linked to organised crime and bikie gangs – the largest single-day crackdown in Australia’s history. AFP Commissioner Reece Kershaw said they uncovered 21 murder plots, shut down 6 secret drug labs, seized nearly $45 million in cash and assets, and were able to prevent a mass shooting in Oz. Many more arrests have been made overseas. And it all hinged on some Esme Watson-grade snooping…

They sure did. And how they did it is the stuff of a Hollywood blockbuster.

• In 2018, the FBI and AFP took down an encrypted app used by criminals to send messages to each other called Phantom Secure. Kershaw yesterday said his officers and their FBI counterparts then began hatching a plan. “Some of the best ideas come over a couple of beers,” he said.

• Enter AN0M… The FBI took control of the communications company in its infancy and turned its app into a criminal honeypot. Long story short, the AFP enlisted undercover agents and informers to push the new app with ‘criminal influencers’. It took off globally with 27 million messages sent from 11,800 devices over the last couple of years.

• Thinking it was safe to use, crime gangs planned executions, mass drug importations and money laundering – all while authorities were monitoring the messages and gathering intelligence. And authorities around the world moved to act on that information yesterday.

The action certainly wasn’t limited to Australia… Some 9,000 police officers worldwide were involved in the broader operation known as Trojan Shield. And in the end, the app was being used by around 300 criminal syndicates in 100-plus countries. More than 800 arrests have been made across yesterday and overnight, including in the US, UK, Germany, NZ and across Europe – and more are expected. Not a bad day in the office for police…

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