Police arrested hundreds of suspected criminals after tricking them into using a messaging app that was actually run by the FBI

·2 min read
FBI
FILE: The seal of the F.B.I. hangs in the Flag Room at the bureau's headquarters March 9, 2007 in Washington, DC. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
  • An international sting operation using a fake encrypted messaging app has resulted in 800 arrests.

  • The app was developed by the FBI and presented as a secure platform for organized criminals.

  • In fact, the FBI could read every word, piling up evidence against the suspects.

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Police around the world arrested more than 800 people in a vast sting operation where suspects were tricked into using a messaging app controlled by the FBI.

Officers from 20 countries convinced suspected criminals that they could correspond safely on special devices loaded with the ANOM app, officials said Tuesday.

However, the supposedly-encrypted system was actually passing every message to police, who used the material to apprehend a vast number of people.

According to a Europol summary of the operation, those arrested are accused of moving cocaine, cannabis and firearms.

Police seized 55 luxury vehicles and more than $48 million in various currencies as part of the operation, Europol said.

A top-down view over a metal bucket filled with cash, in an Australian police handout photo.
Money seized by Australian Federal Police after Operation Ironside/ Picture released June 8, 2021. Australian Federal Police via Reuters

Operation Ironside, as it is known, was jointly devised by the FBI and the Australian Federal Police (AFP), the AFP said in a statement Tuesday. Police forces in 20 countries cooperated since 2019 in spreading the app amongst suspected criminals, Europol said.

Calvin Shivers, assistant director of the FBI's Criminal Investigative Division, said: "Encrypted criminal communications platforms have traditionally been a tool to evade law enforcement and facilitate transnational organized crime."

The catch? ANOM was developed by the FBI, which could read every word being transmitted. Law enforcement agencies used informants to hand out devices installed with the app, the AFP said.

Several Australian police surrounded by equipment and baggage as part of Operation Ironside.
Australian Federal Police during Operation Ironside. Photo released June 8, 2021. Australian Federal Police via Reuters

The devices were first spread to high-ranking suspects, whose trust of the app filtered down to much of the rest of the crime world, the AFP said.

"You had to know a criminal to get hold of one of these customized phones. The phones couldn't ring or email. You could only communicate with someone on the same platform," the BBC reported an unnamed AFP spokesperson as saying.

"Essentially, they have handcuffed each other by endorsing and trusting ANOM and openly communicating on it - not knowing we were watching the entire time," said AFP Commissioner Reece Kershaw.

The communications included alleged "plots to kill, mass drug trafficking and gun distribution," Australian police said in its announcement Tuesday.

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