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Australian cops, FBI created backdoored chat app, told crims it was secure – then snooped on 9,000 users' plots

Hundreds of arrests already in Oz, details of European and US ops to be revealed soon

The Australian Federal Police (AFP) has revealed it was able to decrypt messages sent on a supposedly secure messaging app that was seeded into the criminal underworld and promoted as providing snoop-proof comms.

The app was in fact secretly built by the FBI, and designed to allow law enforcement to tune into conversations between about 9,000 users scattered around Earth.

Results in Australia alone have included over 500 warrants executed, 200-plus arrests, the seizure of AU$45m and 3.7 tonnes of drugs, and the prevention of a credible threat to murder a family of five. Over 4,000 AFP officers were involved in raids overnight, Australian time. Europol and the FBI will detail their use of the app in the coming hours.

The existence of the app — part of Operation Ironside, which quietly began three years ago — was revealed at a press conference in Australia today, where AFP commissioner Reece Kershaw said that, during informal meetings over beers, members of the AFP and the FBI cooked up the idea of creating a backdoored app. The idea built on previous such efforts, such as the Phantom Secure platform.

The app, called AN0M, was seeded into the organised crime community. The software would only run on smartphones specially modified so that they could not make calls nor send emails. These handsets were sold on the black market between criminals as secure messaging tools. The app would only communicate with other AN0M-equipped phones, and required payment of a monthly fee.

“We were able to see every handset that was handed out and attribute it to individuals,” Kershaw said.

“Criminals needed to know a criminal to get a device,” reads the AFP’s announcement of the operation. “The devices organically circulated and grew in popularity among criminals, who were confident of the legitimacy of the app because high-profile organised crime figures vouched for its integrity.”

But the software had a backdoor. Commissioner Kershaw said the organisation he leads “provided a technical capability to decrypt the messages,” and that as a result his force, the FBI, and Europol were able to observe communications among criminals in plain text.

“All they talk about is drugs and violence,” Kershaw said. “There was no attempt to hide behind any kind of codified information.” Intercepts included comments about planned murders and information about where and when speedboats would appear to shift contraband.

Kershaw said the surveillance enabled by the app is legal under the terms of Australia’s Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Act 2018. Law enforcement agencies in other jurisdictions also had legal cover for their use of the software.

However, some of those authorities were set to expire. That, and an operational decision to end the operation due to the opportunity to act on intelligence gathered using AN0M, led to today’s disclosures.

AN0M gave us insights we never had before

“The use of encrypted apps represents significant challenges,” Kershaw said. “AN0M gave us insights we never had before.”

The commissioner acknowledged that criminals will now adjust their behaviour as a result of this news, but suggested the AFP is working to develop similar capabilities. “This was a small platform. We know there are bigger ones. We will ensure we have the technology to disrupt criminals."

FBI International Operations Division legal attaché for Australia Anthony Russo offered similar comments, saying: “Criminals should be on notice that law enforcement are resolute to continue to evolve our capabilities.”

Kershaw somewhat smugly suggested that organised crime will take a while to bounce back from this operation, as intercepts of AN0M conversations suggest that arrests made before the app was revealed have sparked internecine warfare and revenge plots.

By the way, it turns out someone was able to figure out the FBI's ruse in March this year, though they thought the software had been backdoored by its makers and not the Feds. A blog post describing the workings of the code was later deleted. ®

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