AN0M: Hundreds arrested in massive global crime sting using messaging app – Part 2
Read Part 1 of this article here:
- Part 1: AN0M: Hundreds arrested in massive global crime sting using messaging app
In my previous article I explained how what is possibly the world’s largest and most clever police ‘sting’ operation was commenced, resulting in the arrest of thousands of very high level alleged drug traffickers and organised crime figures across the globe. This operation was codenamed ‘Operation Ironside’ and involved many federal police agencies across the world, including the FBI in the United States and the AFP in Australia.
How did the AN0M sting work?
AN0M started in 2018 after police shut down Phantom Secure, an encrypted device network used mostly (the FBI alleges exclusively) by drug traffickers and other organized criminals. An unnamed informant (a person who secretly assists the police, usually in exchange for a reduced sentence or immunity) who had previously sold Phantom Secure phones, told the FBI they were building a “next generation” encrypted device called AN0M. The informant offered the system to the FBI and Australian Federal Police in exchange for a reduced sentence on criminal charges, then agreed to sell AN0M phones to their existing distribution network that catered to organized crime, giving the new system credibility.
Unbeknownst to buyers, each AN0M message included a “master key” that would let law enforcement decrypt its contents, and each device tied a fixed ID number to any username the owner chose. The messages secretly routed to servers that the FBI — as well as the AFP and later other police agencies — could access. A court filing cites examples of these messages, including photos of cocaine packages and conversations about how to smuggle shipments of drugs.
Most early AN0M users were located in Australia. But the network ultimately covered 90 countries, with Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Australia, and Serbia seeing the most users. Its growth surged in early 2021, when law enforcement shut down Sky Global, another encrypted messaging company. A press release from Europol says that 300 criminal syndicates used AN0M devices, including “Italian organized crime, outlaw motorcycle gangs, and international drug trafficking organizations.”
Beyond direct busts made with AN0M data, the FBI described AN0M as a move to “shake the confidence in this entire industry” of encrypted device services. Police have tried to plant backdoors in both general-purpose and specifically crime-focused messaging services, and they’ve hijacked platforms like dark web marketplaces to catch illegal activity — but it’s rarer to see an agency help launch a brand-new phone network for the purpose.
The man who accidentally helped FBI spread spy app
The devices were initially used by alleged senior crime figures, giving other criminals the confidence to use the platform.
“You had to know a criminal to get hold of one of these customised phones. The phones couldn’t ring or email. You could only communicate with someone on the same platform,” the Australian police explained. The authorities even took advantage of a current trend in Silicon Valley – they charged a monthly subscription of $1500 or using the product.
Dubbed the “Facebook gangster” by Australian media outlets, Hakan Ayik has been identified as being one of the very first users of the AN0M platform and is alleged to have introduced and recommended it to many in his criminal network. Local outlets say he has been living in Turkey since evading arrest, living a luxury lifestyle with a Dutch wife. Since Police said he was “best off handing himself into us” as soon as possible, as he may be in danger himself, having unwittingly helped the FBI with their sting.
In total, some 12,000 encrypted devices were used by around 300 criminal syndicates in more than 100 countries.
What did the authorities uncover?
Officers were able to read millions of messages in “real time” describing murder plots, mass drug import plans and other schemes.
“All they talk about is drugs, violence, hits on each other, innocent people who are going to be murdered, a whole range of things,” said Australian Federal Police commissioner Reece Kershaw.
In total, some 9,000 police officers around the world were involved in the sting. Calvin Shivers of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division said the operation had enabled police agencies to “turn the tables on criminal organisations”, with intelligence gathered preventing murders and a number of other crimes. “We were actually able to see photographs of hundreds of tons of cocaine that were concealed in shipments of fruit,” he said.
In Australia, 224 people were arrested including members of outlaw motorcycle gangs, mafia groups, Asian crime syndicates, and serious and organised crime groups.
Police said they also seized three tonnes of drugs and A$45m (£25m; $35m) in cash and assets, and acted on 20 “threats to kill”, potentially saving the lives of a “significant number of innocent bystanders”.
According to public statements, the FBI and other agencies seeded secure Anom phones with suspected crime syndicates, gradually building a network of around 12,000 total (and 9,000 active) devices. The phones secretly siphoned 27 million messages between 2019 and 2021, resulting in Operation Greenlight / Trojan Shield — a large-scale bust that included seizing around eight tons of cocaine, 22 tons of cannabis and cannabis resin, 250 firearms, and $48 million in traditional currencies and cryptocurrencies.
This is a fascinating example of law enforcement, perhaps growing tired of wrangling with US tech giants over accessing encrypted data and locked devices, taking matters into its own hands. The arrest phase is still in its early days and it is expected that many, many more arrests will come.
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