The 5 Wildest Things About the FBI’s Secret Phone App for Criminals

The plot was apparently hatched over beers between Australian police and the FBI.
June 8, 2021, 7:21am
hand phone
More than 10,000 criminals used the messaging app, unaware that the FBI was watching. Photo by Tero Vesalainen, via Getty Images.

Australia’s largest ever crime sting resulted in the arrest of more than 200 members of the nation’s criminal underworld this week – including those from the Australian mafia, outlaw motorcycle gangs, Asian crime syndicates and Albanian organised crime groups.

Hundreds of search warrants were executed across Australia on Monday, along with simultaneous stings in New Zealand, the United States and Europe, as authorities launched the spearhead of Operation Ironside: a three-year investigation, in collaboration with the FBI, which exposed thousands of criminals using a trojan horse encrypted messaging app that turned out to be a spying tool for law enforcement agencies.

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There’s a lot to unpack here, and the revelations that have come to light in the past 24 hours about the various ways in which authorities baited major international criminals are pretty wild. Here are some of them.

The plot was apparently hatched over beers between Australian police and the FBI

The app, created by an independent developer and named AN0M, promised users an “ultra-secure” communications network that was impervious to outside surveillance. Rumour has it, according to Australia’s federal police commissioner Reece Kershaw, that Australian police and FBI agents were drinking beers together in 2018 when they hatched a plan to exploit the communications network for their own ends: by surreptitiously taking control of AN0M and using it as window into criminal activities.

“I wasn’t there,” Kershaw told reporters on Tuesday, “but as you know some of the best ideas come over a couple of beers.”

Undercover agents relied on “criminal influencers” to promote the app

With the help of technical staff from the Australian Federal Police (AFP), the FBI established a secret backdoor into AN0M, via which they could covertly decrypt and read messages in real time. The app-turned-honeypot, which over the past few years has come to be used by organised crime gangs around the world to plan executions, mass drug importations and money laundering, was then introduced into Australia’s criminal networks by unwitting fugitive drug trafficker Hakan Ayik, who was given a device containing AN0M by undercover agents. 

Ayik is the founding member of the “Aussie Cartel” – a syndicate formed by some of Australia’s most wanted crime bosses that smuggles an estimated $1.5 billion AUD worth of drugs into the country each year – and is currently Australia’s most wanted priority target. He recommended AN0M to criminal associates, who would purchase mobile devices that had been preloaded with the app on the black market. 

These phones could not make calls or send emails, and could only send messages to another device that had the same app, according to a statement by the Australian Federal Police (AFP). Criminals needed to know a criminal to get a device. They would then use the encrypted messaging software to send messages, distort messages and take videos.

High-profile organised crime figures vouched for the app’s integrity – and by the time authorities swooped more than 10,000 people were using AN0M devices across the world, including more than 1,600 in Australia.

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

Criminals chatted openly about murder and large-scale drug deliveries

Kershaw further noted that conversations on the app were brazen, openly discussing drugs and plotting murders. 

“It would be like ‘I need 1,000 kilos at this price’... no attempt to hide behind any codified sort of conversation,” he said. “It was there to be seen – including ‘we’ll have a speedboat that you’ll meet you at this point, this is who’ll do this,’ and so on.” 

Since 2018, Operation Ironside has led authorities to seize 3.7 tonnes of drugs, 104 weapons, $44,934,457 million in cash and assets expected to run into the millions of dollars. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Tuesday that the operation had “struck a heavy blow against organised crime. Not just in this country, but one that will echo around organised crime around the world,” and described it as “a watershed moment in Australian law enforcement history.”

The app has already prevented major crimes – but it’s likely to set off even more

Commissioner Kershaw added to that by claiming that police had “arrested the alleged kingmakers behind these crimes, prevented mass shootings in suburbs, and frustrated serious and organised crime by seizing their ill-gotten wealth. Collectively these alleged offenders are facing jail terms that could run into hundreds of years.”

Search warrants were also executed across New Zealand in what local police said was the “world's most sophisticated law enforcement action against organised crime to date,” and the FBI similarly worked with 18 other police organisations worldwide as part of a global operation called Trojan Shield. More arrests are expected both within Australia and abroad under a coordinated global response. 

Cops expect the app to cause infighting among criminals

In the wake of this week’s bust, Commissioner Kershaw indicated that Australian authorities were on high alert in anticipation of “disruptions” and potential infighting within the criminal underworld.

“They all turn on each other,” he said, “[and] there’s no doubt going to be some tension within the whole system about who owes what drug debt and so on.”

The AFP said it is also likely to seek extradition requests for a number of persons of interest living overseas. 

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