A secret Australian police operation using a fake app to spy on the texts of senior mafia and bikie figures was put at risk when a tech geek correctly accused it of being a scam months ago.
Authorities sensationally carried out the country’s biggest ever organised crime bust on Tuesday morning, announcing 224 people had been arrested as a result of an elaborate sting using technology designed by the FBI.
Some of Australia’s most sinister criminal networks began using ‘AN0M’ branded phones and encrypted messaging almost three years ago, not realising the Federal Police were using the platform to read their messages.
The app gained currency in the underworld after being promoted by drug kingpins such as Australia’s most wanted man, Hakan Ayik, after first being distributed by police informants.
Through the covert operation, detectives allegedly uncovered 21 murder plots – saving the lives of a family of five – and shut down gun distribution and mass drug trafficking rings. Mafia bosses, bikies and reality TV stars have been arrested..
A luxury Ducati motorcycle, Audi sedan, Rolex watches, ammunition, bullet-proof vests, firearms and even memorabilia from the 1972 cult classic The Godfather was seized from a number of properties.
However, Daily Mail Australia can reveal the operation was in jeopardy of being compromised earlier this year – and authorities may have wound it up earlier as a result.
In late March, an anonymous blogger known only as ‘canyouguess67’ posted an article warning users to keep off ANOM for their ‘own safety’.
Mafia figures and bikies purchased ANoM-branded phones with encrypted messaging technology already downloaded. When criminals used the phones, the messages were intercepted by Australian Federal Police law enforcement agencies
An anonymous tech geek posted a blog online in March, titled ‘AN0M ENCRYPTED SCAM EXPOSED’
Blogger ‘canyouguess67’ posted a chilling warning to users of the AN0M app on March 29, warning people: ‘STAY AWAY …. IF YOU VALUE YOUR PRIVACY & SAFETY’
Among the items seized by the AFP was memorabilia from the 1972 cult classic The Godfather
Australia’s biggest ever police bust has seen 3.77 tonnes of drugs, $45 million in cash, guns, luxury cars, motorcycles and watches pictured) seized
Ninja Warrior 2017 contestant Sopiea Kong was among those arrested. The 33-year-old was charged last week following a raid at a Kangaroo Point home, where police allegedly seized 154g of meth
A tactical police officer guards a handcuffed arrested man during a raid. He was one of 224 people arrested as part of Operation Ironside
Another tattooed man sits on a bed guarded by police as officers execute a search warrant on his home
‘STAY AWAY FROM ANOM IF YOU VALUE YOUR PRIVACY AND SAFETY,’ the blogger wrote in an article, which has since been pulled down.
‘THEY ARE COMPROMISED, LIARS AND YOUR DATA IS RUNNING VIA USA.’
In what now seems to be a telling clue, the blogger expressed serious concerns about the fact that the AN-M device he had tested ‘was actually in constant contact with Google services’ in both New South Wales, Australia and California.
‘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),’ he wrote.
Following a technical analysis, the blogger – correctly – recommended people not use ANoM technology, warning authorities could ‘completely infiltrate every users’ devices (sic) as well as their operations, and worse of all authorities would have the ability to decrypt and intercept messages’.
In an incredible twist, the unnamed tech blogger warned that they had contacted law enforcement agencies with their concerns.
The blog, named ‘ANOMEXPOSED’, has since been taken down but it was still publicly available via Google on Tuesday.
It is unclear whether the tech expert’s concerns reached the ears of the Federal Police or played a role in the project being sensationally unveiled today.
The bust exposed new details about how one of Australia’s most wanted fugitives gave police extensive access to the world’s criminal underworld. Pictured: one man being arrested by AFP officers
Millions of dollars in assets have been seized including this sparking collection of expensive watches
A fire engine red Ducati which is also now in the possession of the Australian Federal Police
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the AFP operation, known as Operation Ironside, had struck a ‘heavy blow’ against organised crime.
‘The operation puts Australia at the forefront of the fight against criminals who peddle in human misery and ultimately, it will keep our communities and Australians safe,’ he said on Tuesday.
‘Illicit drug use ruins lives and fuels organised crime.’
AFP Commissioner Reece Kershaw said federal agents had been in the ‘back pockets’ of criminals through the encryption app.
The idea, Mr Kershaw said, came over a ‘couple of beers’ between officers and FBI agents years back.
‘The FBI had the lead on this. We provided the technical capability to decrypt those messages,’ he said.
‘Some of the best ideas come over a couple of beers.’
Ninja Warrior 2017 contestant Sopiea Kong was among those arrested. The 33-year-old was charged last week following a raid at a Kangaroo Point home, where police allegedly seized 154g of meth.
Kong, who was also allegedly in possession of $2,030 cash and a revolver, was granted bail and will appear in court on June 28.
Former Bachelorette star Samuel Minkin, who appeared on Becky and Elly Miles’ season of the dating show, was charged with possessing a large commercial quantity of cannabis after police stopped a van in Byron Bay last month.
Former Bandito bikie Benjamin Joseph Thornton, 31, was arrested after police seized two mobile phones and a small quantity of cocaine. He was denied bail and will reappear in court next week.
What is ANoM?
On its glitzy website, the ‘ANoM’ phone looks like any new tech innovation with sleek black lines, ‘invite only’ exclusivity and a pledge to ‘enforce your right to privacy’.
But its best feature – and for most of its users, the worst – wasn’t promoted in its marketing material.
The phone, which supposedly allowed encrypted communications safe from the eyes of the law, was actually a cunning trap laid for a who’s who of organised crime.
The Australian Federal Police on Tuesday revealed a breathtaking three-year tech ploy which led to 4,000 police executing 525 search warrants.
‘Enforce your right to privacy’: This is how the ANoM website advertised its product – with users not realising that law enforcement officials could read each and every message
Senior bikies and mafia figures were tricked into buying hi-tech phones that would supposedly let them messages one another, free of police snooping.
But the ANoM phones were actually designed by the FBI and allowed Australian police to read the texts of organised crime figures.
Police watched in real time as alleged crooks spilled their secrets to one another on their own app.
Some 21 execution plots were foiled and drug and gun smuggling networks dismantled.
Some 224 people have been arrested, $44,934,457 in cash seized, as well as 104 weapons, 3.7 tonnes of drugs and multi-million dollar assets.
Alleged crooks even paid six-monthly subscription fees to the police – the money only further reinforcing law enforcement methods.
How did it all work?
Users could buy phone handsets costing between $1,500 and $2,500 from what has been described as underground distributors.
The phones were stripped down – they couldn’t even make calls, access the internet or send emails.
What did do was send encrypted messages, photos and videos, using a foreign SIM card to apparently avoid Australian data snooping laws.
Crooks could buy a six month subscription to use the app – the funds raised unknowingly redirected to the police.
The app was invitation-only as of Tuesday morning – before the page was sensationally taken down and replaced with a warning by the FBI
Anom’s Twitter account claimed the company was based in the famously neutral nation of Switzerland
The app was accessed by entering a PIN number into the phone’s calculator, the stuff of spy dramas.
ANoM’s website, which was only deleted about 10am on Tuesday, made the technology sound bulletproof.
The company was apparently based in famously neutral Switzerland and boasted of ‘military grade encrypt and sanitise’.
For its encryption, it claimed to use ‘OMEMO Double Ratchet Algorithm … independently audited by Dutch security research group Radically Open Security’.
That may have been an in-joke – as all the supposedly self-destructing messages sent on the app was radically open to the Australian Federal Police to read.
Australia’s most wanted drug kingpin Hasan Ayik (centre) was influential in spreading the AN0M app through his criminal networks, it has been claimed
Police have been coy about just how Australian mafia and bikie figures first came across the devices.
That is likely to remain a secret, as it involves police informants.
But what is clear is that the ‘business’ began to grow of its own accord beginning in about October 2018.
Criminal ‘influencers’, including drug kingpin Hasan Ayik, eventually became so enthralled by the technology they distributed the devices around the world.
The Federal Police and even Prime Minister Scott Morrison have crowed about the success of the scheme, rolled out in Australia due to its world-first data snooping laws.
‘This is as a warning to organised crime in Australia, and abroad – the AFP and Australia’s law enforcement agencies have a laser-like focus in bringing them to justice,’ Mr Morrison said.
But it is clear that AN0M is no secret anymore – with its details splashed across some of the nation’s biggest newspapers today and hundreds of cases before the courts, many no doubt unaware that someone was sounding the alarm about the app months ago.
This is how the Anom.io website looked as of late Tuesday morning