It was the perfect secret criminal investigation.
A messaging app that thousands of underworld figures thought was completely encrypted and hidden from global law enforcement, distributed through special mobile phones that were only in the hands of alleged criminals.
Instead, the app and the jailbroken phones had been distributed, and were being controlled and watched from the beginning, by police in Australia and the US.
The massive coup came in early 2018, when the FBI shut down a different, notorious encrypted service called Phantom Secure that had been used by cartels and other gangs.
Phantom Secure’s boss Vincent Ramos and four other employees were arrested and charged for supporting drug trafficking.
Those arrests led the FBI to a builder of the Phantom Secure phones, who was working on the next generation.
The tech wizard already had one drug conviction and faced new charges, so to avoid jail, they agreed to build AN0M for the FBI.
They not only avoided more jail time, the FBI also paid them $US120,000 ($A160,000) for their services as well as almost $US60,000 ($A80,000) for living and travel expenses.
The first phones were distributed across Australia in October 2018, with their popularity exploding across the globe. Indeed, by the time police blew up the app earlier this month, there were 9000 active users and more than 300 distinct transnational criminal organisations were using it.
Protecting the AN0M app at all costs
Over the past few years, law enforcement around the world has been desperate not to blow the cover of their secret app, only occasionally making arrests when a threat of life or a serious drug bust was detected on it.
When these busts were done, police were always quick to suggest their intel had come from another source.
But in a triumphant press conference on June 8, the AFP revealed their hand – the app had been closed and its joint investigation with the FBI was now over.
Police raids took place around the world as the app was shut down, and globally more than 800 people were arrested.
More than 40 tonnes of cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamine and other illicit substances were seized, as well as 250 firearms.
Close to $50 million in cash was taken by police and more than 100 murder plots were disrupted.
The operation had been going so smoothly over the past few years that some were left questioning why police decided to blow up the encrypted app.
Hacking into and deciphering information sent on encrypted apps is one of the biggest challenges for law enforcement today.
FBI Special Agent Suzanne Turner told reporters that many criminal cases, that they had used AN0M to help with were ripening.
“It was time to get these criminals off the street,” she said.
AN0M truth revealed by anonymous blogger
Police also said the entire aim of Operation Ironside, known globally as Operation Trojan Shield, was to undermine trust in encrypted devices – a goal that could only be achieved if they went public.
But a blog post from earlier this year, penned by an anonymous tech genius, told a different story.
The blogger, named “canyouguess67”, took to WordPress in March to label AN0M a “scam” and that a device he had tested was “in constant contact with” Google servers and relayed data to non-secure servers in Australia and the US.
“I was quite concerned to see the amount of IP addresses relating to many corporations within the Five eyes Governments (Australia, USA, Canada, UK, NZ who share information with one another),” the post said, before it was deleted.
A final suggestion was that the server, in a mystery third country, that the FBI used to legally copy the AN0M messages, was up for expiration.
The warrant that allowed the FBI to blind copy the messages from the third country was due to expire on June 7 this year.
June 8 was the day the AFP fronted reporters and announced it had pulled off its monumental and historic sting.
‘Maximum damage’ to global organised crime
On that day, AFP Commissioner Reece Kershaw said the organisation had inflicted “maximum damage to serious organised crime”.
“With devastating consequences to those who seek to do harm to Australians and Australia’s interests, and today, Australia is a safer country because of this unprecedented AFP-led operation,” Mr Kershaw added.
“Ironside has arrested and charged who we allege are some of the most dangerous criminals to Australia.
“We allege they are members of outlaw motorcycle gangs, Australian Mafia, Asian crime syndicates and serious and organised crime groups.
“We allege they’ve been trafficking illicit drugs into Australia at an industrial scale.
“Sadly, criminal gangs are targeting Australia because it is one of the most profitable countries in the world to sell drugs, and for three years, this operation has been covert.
“Australian law enforcement has been arresting and charging alleged offenders and we have prevented tonnes of drugs from coming onshore.”
– with AFP