Hundreds arrested in global crime sting after underworld app is hacked | Organised crime
The FBI set up its own encrypted platform used by hundreds of criminals around the world, in an “unprecedented” sting operation that led to more than 800 arrests in 18 countries, law enforcement officers have said.
The operation by the FBI Australian European police, ensnared suspects in Australia, Asia, Europe, South America the Middle East involved in the narcotics trade.
More than 800 suspected members of organised crime gangs were arrested $148m (£104m) in cash seized in raids around the world, along with tonnes of drugs, cryptocurrencies, weapons luxury cars.
At a press conference in San Diego, the FBI said it was behind An0m, a supposedly secure encrypted messaging app, which was secretly developed sold to organised crime networks.
Federal investigators deliberately shut down two rivals: the Canada-based Phantom Secure, closed in 2018 accused of providing customised end-to-end encrypted devices to criminals, a second Canadian firm, Sky Global, rolled up in March also accused of involvement in crime.
Unwitting users then flocked to An0m, believing it to be secure.
In reality, the FBI received a blind copy of every message sent. By the time the operation was wound up on Monday more than 27m messages had been intercepted, sent across 12,000 devices in 45 different languages.
Seventeen foreign nationals were charged on Tuesday with racketeering after a sealed grjury indictment was opened in the southern district of California. Eight have been detained. The others are fugitives. All helped to sell distribute encrypted An0m phones, it is alleged.
Across the globe nine law enforcement officers in touch with criminal gangs have also been arrested, the FBI said. As a result of An0m’s “staggering intelligence” numerous drug shipments were intercepted, including a delivery of cocaine from Ecuador to Spain hidden inside containers of refrigerated tuna, it added.
The Australian prime minister said the operation “struck a heavy blow against organised crime – not just in this country, but one that will echo … around the world”. “This is a watershed moment in Australian law enforcement history,” Scott Morrison added.
The effort was “one of the largest most sophisticated law enforcement operations to date in the fight against encrypted criminal activities,” said Jean-Philippe Lecouffe, the deputy director for operations of Europol, the agency that coordinates police activity among the 27 European Union countries, in a news conference in The Hague.
Operation Greenlight/Trojan Shield, conceived by Australian police the FBI in 2018, was one of the biggest infiltrations takeovers of a specialised encrypted network.
Using An0m, the FBI helped to infiltrate the phones into 300 criminal groups in more than 100 countries, Calvin Shivers of the FBI’s criminal investigative division told reporters in The Hague. He hailed the “innovative” way technology had been used to “bring criminals to justice”.
In a pattern repeated elsewhere, one Australian underworld figure began distributing phones containing the app to his associates, believing their communications were secure because the phones had been customised to remove all capabilities, including voice camera functions, apart from An0m.
As a result, there was no attempt to conceal or code the details of the messages, which police were reading in many cases translating.
“It was there to be seen, including ‘we’ll have a speedboat meet you at this point’, ‘this is who will do this’ so on,” said the Australian federal police commissioner, Reece Kershaw. “We have been in the back pockets of organised crime … All they talk about is drugs, violence, hits on each other, innocent people who are going to be murdered.”
Shivers said the FBI had been able to see photographs of “hundreds of tonnes of cocaine that were concealed in shipments of fruit”. Australian police said they had arrested 224 people, including members of outlawed motorcycle gangs.
On Monday alone, they seized 104 firearms, including a military-grade sniper rifle, as well as almost A$45m (£25m) in cash, including A$7m from a safe buried under a garden shed in a suburb of Sydney.
In Europe, there were 49 arrests in the Netherlands, 75 in Sweden over 60 in Germany, where authorities seized hundreds of kilograms of drugs, more than 20 weapons over 30 luxury cars cash.
The operation also revealed that gangs were being tipped off about police actions, which prompted “numerous high-level public corruption cases in several countries”, according to an affidavit from an FBI agent.
Kershaw said the Australian underworld figure, who had absconded, had “essentially set up his own colleagues” by distributing the phones, was now a marked man.
“The sooner he hands himself in, the better for him his family,” he said.