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‘Sting of the century’: FBI & Australian police trick criminal gangs into using surveilled chat app, make hundreds of arrests

Criminals have been using the supposedly highly secure encrypted chat app ANOM, which was installed on mobile phones bought on the black market, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) said in a statement on Tuesday. The devices were stripped of all other functions and could only send messages via ANOM, which was becoming increasingly popular in criminal circles.  

What the users did not know was that the app was covertly run by the FBI, and Australian police helped to decrypt the messages.

“These criminal influencers put the AFP in the back pocket of hundreds of alleged offenders,” AFP Commissioner Reece Kershaw said.

Kershaw said officers thwarted 21 murder plots, including of a family of five, shut down six drug labs, seized 104 pieces of firearms and other weapons, and nearly $45 million in cash. Roughly 3.7 tons of drugs were confiscated as well. 

In Australia’s New South Wales (NSW) state alone, officers detained 35 people, seized 27 guns, including a 50-caliber sniper rifle, and “significant quantities” of drugs, such as cocaine, cannabis, and MDMA. 

©  NSW Police Force

They also confiscated a number of luxury sports cars, including a Ferrari, Lamborghini, McLaren, and Bentley, Australia media reported, NSW police said.

©  NSW Police Force

Kershaw said the operation inflicted “maximum damage” on organized crime.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called the operation a “watershed moment” in the country’s law enforcement history, adding that the success of Ironside will “echo around organized crime around the world.” 

©  NSW Police Force

Anthony Russo, FBI legal attaché at the US Embassy in Australia, thanked his Australian colleagues, saying, “Over the years, we have learned that working together is not just the best option – it is the only option.”

Separately, New Zealand Police arrested 35 people and seized $3.7 million worth of assets, including drugs, firearms, and vehicles.

©  New Zealand Police

Unsealed US court records obtained by tech news site Motherboard show that the FBI worked on “exploiting ANOM by inserting it into criminal networks.”

In what was dubbed ‘Operation Trojan Shield’ by the bureau, agents secretly released the app into the market. It was designed to attach a secret master key to every message sent thought the app, which allowed agents to “decrypt and store the message as it is transmitted,” the documents say.

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