AN0M: Global Crime Sting – Part 1

It would have been very hard for any of you to have missed all of the news headlines from early June about what appears to be one of the most brazen, clever and successful police operations ever conducted anywhere in Australia and perhaps the world. Codenamed ‘Operation Ironside’, this police operation was jointly conceived and run by the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation from the United States of America), perhaps the largest and most powerful law enforcement agency in the world, and its Australian counterpart, the AFP (Australian Federal Police) and has so far resulted in the arrests of 800 suspected criminals across the world.

The story behind this operation, including how it was conceived and executed and who has been brought down as a result, will certainly one day be made into a Hollywood movie. As far as I’m aware there has not been anything of this magnitude or calibre attempted by the police anywhere in the world, ever. What started as a two man team in a small windowless room at the AFP’s headquarters in Canberra in 2018 eventually turned into an operation that consumed virtually all of the entire AFP’s resources – to the point where nearly every other section of the AFP was devoted to the operation. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the operation had “struck a heavy blow against organised crime” around the world and other world leaders have said similar things.

Who was targeted?

These are not alleged to be regular street level criminals either. Most of the people who were targeted and arrested are alleged to have been operating at the very highest level of organised crime and drug running worldwide. They were said to have been responsible for the trafficking of hundreds of tonnes of drugs and wholesale quantities of firearms across the world and were responsible for at least two dozen murder plots. These are people who the police say were operating from parts of the world such as Turkey and Dubai but with extensive ties to organised crime syndicates, such as the Triads in Asia, Mafia in Europe and bikie gangs in Australia.

So far, drugs, weapons, luxury vehicles and cash have been seized during raids conducted across more than a dozen countries across the world. This includes 8 tonnes of cocaine, 250 guns and $48m in various worldwide currencies and cryptocurrencies – and this is just the start. Some officials commented that there will be many, many more arrests to come and so significant is the size of this operation that it will clog up the court system in many countries for years to come. So far in Brisbane alone there have been over 100 arrests alone.

The technology

In order to understand how the police managed to pull off such an elaborate operation, it’s necessary to first understand how an encrypted phone application works.

Anybody with a mobile phone will know that a phone requires a SIM card, which is usually registered in that person’s name. With a standard mobile phone and a working SIM card, a person is able to make and receive calls and also send and receive SMS messages. Sending messages traditionally with a mobile phone is referred to as sending a ‘native message’ as it is sent via the service provider of the SIM card (such as Telstra or Optus) and utilises their infrastructure. Voice calls or messages sent or received this way are able to be intercepted by the police if they have the right warrants – it’s simply a matter of the police obtaining a warrant and then serving it onto the service provider.

What a lot of people will also be familiar with are third party applications that are able to be used to make calls and send and receive messages. The more popular ones are Viber, WhatsApp or WeChat and these are free to download and use on any smartphone (such as an iPhone). Communications sent through these applications are what is known as ‘end to end’ encrypted, meaning that it is not able to be intercepted by anybody, including the police, as it does not rely on the traditional infrastructure of a service provider. The only way that communications sent with these applications can be obtained by the police is if they are able to obtain the actual phone that was being used to send the communications.

The ‘AN0M’ application

Beyond those third party applications referred to above, there are even more secretive and private applications and devices available to those people who know how to obtain or access them. These are not widely known in the public sphere, but anybody working in law enforcement or in the realms of criminal law will know what I am referring to. There are of course legitimate reasons to be using these devices, such as the protection from corporate espionage or where extremely sensitive information needs to be transmitted. But, like any other technology, they are also able to be misused for illegal activities.

These special devices and applications have completely changed the way that high-level organised crime has traditionally been conducted, because syndicates are able to communicate with each other in a way that is entirely secure and across the world. This has caused enormous headaches for law enforcement because, with these devices, the criminals are essentially operating invisibly.

So what did the FBI do to confront such a challenging problem? They decided to turn this technology back onto the criminals. In other words, they let the criminals gather all of the evidence for them – in an extremely clever and extremely risky way. They created the ‘AN0M’ network.

In my next article I’ll discuss how the FBI created the AN0M network, how they managed to convince who they believed to be the highest level criminal figures to use it and what they’ve managed to achieve so far.

Go to Part 2 of this article here:

  1. Part 2: AN0M: Hundreds arrested in massive global crime sting using messaging app

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