FBI-Run Messaging Platform Dupes Criminals, Leads to 800 Arrests

Police in 16 countries arrested over 800 suspects who have used an encrypted messaging platform to discuss their illegal activities, not knowing that the app was secretly run by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigations.

Ironside OperationPolice in a worldwide operation against ogranized crime groups that were using an encrypted messaging platform. (Photo: Australian Federal Police)Europol said on Tuesday that the operation was one of the “most sophisticated” and largest ever  conducted against encrypted criminal activities.

The FBI introduced the encrypted messaging platform, AN0M, in 2019 with the goal of targeting global organized crime, drug trafficking, and money laundering organizations “regardless of where they operated,” the statement said.

The platform, used by over 300 organized crime groups in over 100 countries, was strategically developed and its features adapted to the needs of crime syndicates, to encourage criminal users to take to the new app perceived to shield them from the watch of law enforcement and discuss their criminal endeavours.

The 27 million encrypted messages sent and received since the app’s inception 18 months ago, were actually being decrypted and reviewed by 16 countries’ law enforcement authorities in real time. These messages included “plots to kill, mass drug trafficking and gun distribution” operations, Europol said.

As a result, authorities were able to seize over eight tons of cocaine, 22 tons of cannabis and cannabis resin, two tons of synthetic drugs (amphetamine and methamphetamine), six tons of synthetic drugs precursors, 250 firearms, 55 luxury vehicles and over US$48 million in various worldwide currencies and cryptocurrencies, the statement added.

“Encrypted criminal communications platforms have traditionally been a tool to evade law enforcement and facilitate transnational organized crime. The FBI and our international partners continue to push the envelope and develop innovative ways to overcome these challenges and bring criminals to justice," the FBI's Criminal Investigative Division Assistant Director, Calvin A. Shivers, said.

In Australia alone, 3.7 tons of drugs and AUS$44.9 million ($34.78 million) in cash were seized, and 224 offenders were arrested on 526 charges, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) announced in a separate statement.

"Today, Australia is a much safer country because of the extraordinary outcome under Operation Ironside,'' AFP’s Commissioner, Reece Kershaw, said.

The statement went on to explain in more detail how the app worked, “filling the vacuum” after an earlier operation had dismantled the Canada-based encrypted communication service - Phantom Secure, in 2018.

The app could only be used on special devices bought on the black market, and which could only communicate with other devices with the app.

“The devices organically circulated and grew in popularity among criminals, who were confident of the legitimacy of the app because high-profile organized crime figures vouched for its integrity,” the statement said, adding that “criminals needed to know a criminal to get a device.”

"These criminal influencers put the AFP in the back pocket of hundreds of alleged offenders. Essentially, they have handcuffed each other by endorsing and trusting AN0M and openly communicating on it – not knowing we were watching the entire time," Commissioner Kershaw said.

The enforcement agencies involved in the operation added that more arrests will follow.