A secret informant and hacker, who once worked for some of the world’s worst underworld figures, is being credited for being the driving force behind what many have dubbed the “sting of the century”.
Police across the globe pounced on hundreds of alleged criminals this week, all of whom are accused of using a top-secret messaging app to communicate with bikies, mafia, and other notorious gangs.
Police allege thousands of people used the app AN0M, only found on encrypted, “jailbroken” phones, for three years to organise crime and violence.
However, in a stunning twist earlier this week, police revealed the messaging app had been controlled by law enforcement from its inception three years ago.
More than 800 people who allegedly used the app have since been arrested – 225 of those in Australia – but the stunning sting couldn’t have worked without the help of a Canadian.
According to court documents from the US Justice Department, the FBI’s operation kicked off in early 2018, after the bureau dismantled a Canadian-based encryption service called Phantom Secure.
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That tech company, police allege, had helped supply encrypted mobile phones to drugs gangs, including Mexico’s notorious Sinaloa cartel.
In March 2018 Phantom Secure’s CEO Vincent Ramos was indicted by grand jury and along with colleagues would eventually plead guilty to a raft of charges related to drug trafficking.
After destroying that method of communication, the FBI decided to fill the hole in the underworld market.
The FBI managed to recruit a former Phantom Secure distributor and hacker, who had been developing a new, encrypted communication platform called AN0M.
According to court documents, the “confidential human source” agreed to work for the FBI and to give them control of the network for the possibility of a reduced prison sentence.
He was also paid $120,000 for AN0M.
Police in 16 countries were able to read the messages of underworld figures as they plotted drug deals, arms transfers and gangland hits on the compromised AN0M devices.
Mafia groups, Asian crime syndicates, motorcycle gangs and other criminal networks were all monitored using the spiked phones as part of Operation Trojan Shield, the name given to Operation Ironside in the US.
The sting, jointly conceived by Australia and the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, prevented around 150 murders, foiled several large-scale narcotics shipments and led to seizures of 250 weapons and $48 million in currency, they added.
What is AN0M?
AN0M was billed as a fully secure encrypted mobile phone that promised the user total secrecy in communications.
Essentially it was a jailbroken handset that used a modified operating system – removing any of the normal text, phone or GPS services that would make it trackable and traceable.
On the surface, the device would look like a normal mobile phone, but it contained a “secure” messaging service hidden behind a functioning calculator app.
In theory, the phone operated on a closed network – AN0M phones could only communicate with other AN0M phones using “military grade” encryption that transferred data via secure proxy servers.
The phones also contained a kill switch to delete contacts or any other data stored locally.
Similar services like Phantom Secure, Sky Global, Ciphr and EncroChat have for years been used by criminal networks for planning and communication — and many have been exploited by law enforcement.
Why did criminals buy it?
Initially, 50 AN0M phones were distributed in a test run, mostly to members of Australian organised criminal gangs.
But through word of mouth they gained in popularity with criminal underworld figures, who reportedly recommended them to friends.
Interest in AN0M exploded in 2020 when European authorities rolled up EncroChat, with dozens arrested, and after Sky Global CEO Jean Francois Eap was detained.
In the end, the FBI, the Australian Federal Police and an unnamed “third country” were able to access more than 20 million messages from 11,800 devices in 90 countries.
They were most popular in Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Australia and Serbia.
– With Wires