The Criminals Thought the Devices Were Secure. But the Seller Was the F.B.I.


Global law enforcement officials uncovered a three-year operation in which they said they intercepted more than 20 million messages. Hundreds of arrests were made in more than a dozen countries.

MELBOURNE, Australia – Devices bought on the black market hidden behind a calculator app performed only one function: sending encrypted messages and photos.

Law enforcement officials said that for years, organized crime figures around the world relied on tools to organize international drug shipments, coordinate the smuggling of weapons and explosives, and discuss contract killings. Users were so confident in the security of the equipment that they often stated their plans not in code, but in simple language.

Unbeknownst to him, the entire network was run by the FBI

On Tuesday, global law enforcement officials uncovered a three-year operation they said had intercepted more than 20 million messages, and arrested at least 800 people in more than a dozen countries.

In Australia, more than 200 people were arrested in an attempt by domestic and international organized crime groups and illegal motorcycle gangs, officials said. Hundreds more were arrested in Europe, officials said, and US law enforcement officials were expected to announce more arrests later on Tuesday.

The operation, described by Australian authorities and court documents in the United States, represents a breakthrough for law enforcement. Although authorities have cracked or shut down encrypted platforms in the past – such as one called Encrochat that police in Europe successfully hacked – this is the first known instance in which authorities have controlled an entire encrypted network from its inception.

“We are in the pocket behind organized crime,” Reece Kershaw, Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police, said on tuesday.

According to court documents, the FBI’s operation, which was unsealed by the Justice Department on Monday, has its origins in early 2018, when the bureau destroyed a Canadian-based encryption service called Phantom Secure. Officials said the company supplied encrypted cellphones to drug cartels and other criminal groups.

Sensing a void in the underground market, the FBI recruited a former Phantom Secure distributor who was developing a new encrypted communications system called Anom. According to court documents, the informant agreed to work for the FBI and control the network for the possibility of a reduced prison sentence to the bureau. Documents say the FBI paid the informant $120,000.

Enom devices were cellphones that were stripped of all normal functions. Their only working app was disguised as a calculator function: after entering a code, users could send messages and photos with end-to-end encryption.

Working with Australian authorities, the FBI and the informant developed a “master key” that allowed them to resend messages to a third country and decrypt them.

Authorities also relied on informants to bring devices into the highly insular criminal network. Informant began in October 2018 by offering tools to three other distributors regarding organized crime in Australia.

A major break, law enforcement officials said, came when they were able to obtain a device from the hands of Hakan Ayik, an Australian who fled the country a decade ago and police believe the drug is from Turkey. Imports have been directed.

The user base grew rapidly, and as of last month, there were about 9,000 active devices and users in more than 90 countries, according to the FBI. In total, more than 300 criminal syndicates used the devices, officials said, including Germany, the Netherlands. and Spain.

Europol deputy executive director Jean-Philippe Lecouf said the operation gave law enforcement “extraordinary insight into the criminal landscape and the spinoff investigation will provide.”

Australian authorities acknowledged that Anonymous carried only a small percentage of the total volume of encrypted communications sent by criminal networks. But he said Anonymous had an advantage: The target audience running it could listen — directly — and give users what they wanted.

After users spoke of wanting smaller, newer phones, officials began making them available.

Australian officials said on Tuesday they disclosed the operation was required to disrupt dangerous plots currently in motion and because of the limited time limit for legal authorities to disrupt communications implemented.

The Anom website previously featured flashy graphics and flashy videos reminiscent of Apple ads. On Tuesday, it rolled out a new message: Users who wanted to “discuss how your account is connected to an ongoing investigation” can enter their account details.

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