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Criminal networks duped by FBI app

Editorial

A remarkable scheme hatched over a couple of beers three years ago, involving an encrypted messaging service run by the FBI and Australian Federal Police and taken up by global criminal networks, came to a stunning climax yesterday as law enforcement agencies across 16 countries arrested more than 800 people and seized 32 tonnes of drugs along with 250 firearms, 55 luxury cars and more than US$148m in cash and cryptocurrencies.

Described as Australia's biggest ever organised crime sting, 224 people were arrested across the country yesterday and 1.6 tonne of drugs worth $A1 billion was taken off the streets of Melbourne.

In New Zealand 35 people were arrested, including senior members of the Comancheros, Waikato Mongrel Mob and the Headhunters.

Criminal networks began using the “Anom” branded phones and encrypted messaging in October 2018. The “business” grew of its own accord after agencies deployed the handsets and app to some criminal “influencers” who picked it up and, as the service grew in popularity and trust, distributed it around the world.

New Zealand Police were brought in on the scheme, named Operation Trojan Shield, in January 2020 and say they have identified more than 20 transnational drug operation cells here since then and disrupted trade in more than 140kg of methamphetamine.

Globally 21 murder plots were uncovered through monitoring of the messaging service.

By this week Anom, a company that was said to be based in Switzerland and boasting “military grade encrypt and sanitise”, had grown to have 11,000 members worldwide, with 1650 devices in use in Australia and 57 in New Zealand.

After forking out A$1500-A$2500 for the phone handsets, criminals were also paying six-monthly subscription fees that were redirected to police enforcement activities against them.

It is an incredible tale of clever policing that will have all organised criminals sweating over how they communicate, and will no doubt be coming to a big screen or streaming service in the near future.

The scheme was put at risk in late March this year when an anonymous tech blogger said Anom was a scam, warning users to keep off it for their “own safety”. They had tested a device and found the FBI-designed app was in constant contact with Google services in Australia and California. Apparently the warning didn't travel as well as the app.