The secret AN0M technology which has kneecapped global crime empires was created by a tech whiz ex-drug trafficker as part of a deal for a lighter sentence.
More than 800 people have been arrested worldwide and 224 charged in Australia alone in a sensational global sting spearheaded by the FBI, the Australian Federal Police and European law enforcement agencies.
Court filings released by the US Department of Justice on Wednesday revealed a ‘confidential human source’ first developed the phones and messaging apps for the FBI.
The Tech Whiz had been working on developing next-gen encrypted devices and had spent years supplying similar products to shadowy criminal organisations around the world.
But the Whiz was nervous. He was facing new criminal charges, after already spending six years behind bars in the United States over a drug conviction.
So the Whiz offered FBI agents a deal – he would develop and help distribute the priceless technology among criminal networks in exchange for possible leniency.
More than 800 people have been arrested worldwide and 224 charged in Australia alone as a result of the AN0M app (above, as part of Operation Ironside)
A tactical police officer guards a handcuffed Australian during a raid off the back of the AN0M encrypted messaging app
This white Lamborghini was seized during raids in Vaucluse, in Sydney’s east, on Wednesday
A fire engine red Ducati is also now in the possession of the Australian Federal Police
‘San Diego FBI agents recruited a Confidential Human Source who had been developing the ‘next generation’ encrypted communications product, poised to compete for market share against established hardened encrypted device competitors,’ special agent Nicholas Cheviron said in court documents.
‘The Confidential Human Source offered this next generation device, named ‘Anom,’ to the FBI to use in ongoing and new investigations.’
The FBI paid the Whiz $USD120,000 ($AUD155,000) for his services and covered a further $USD60,000 ($AUD77,500) in living and travel expenses.
It was a small price to pay. The stunning police scam has had a domino effect among major crime syndicates.
As of Tuesday, more than 11,800 AN0M devices were being used in some 90 countries around the world. Authorities were able to read each and every message. Some ‘100% of Anom users in the test phase used Anom to engage in criminal activity’, the document said.
The devices were planted among criminal networks by Australian authorities and gradually spread around the world.
Users bought the devices for about $AUD2500 and a further fee for a six month subscription to an encrypted messaging app.
Unbeknownst to all of them, police were reading each and every word.
Australian law enforcement on Tuesday sized tonnes of drugs, more than $45million in cash and luxury goods including Rolex watches and Lamborghinis.
American court papers made clear what sort of information police were able to gain from the elaborate sting.
There have been a series of cocaine busts in Spain, with authorities intercepting tonnes shipped from Ecuador and Costa Rica.
There was also an elaborate alleged plot to smuggle cocaine from California to a car workshop in Sydney.
Text messages showed an alleged dealer codenamed TOM FORD – after the American fashion designer – apparently discussing the shipments with his friend, Sion.
Anatomy of an AN0M drug deal: Text messages exchanged between two AN0M users allegedly organising cocaine shipments to Australia are on left. The pair sent each other pictures of cocaine bricks – photos of which were intercepted by authorities (on right)
The drug shipment allegedly travelled from California to a small suburb in Sydney’s inner south, the US court documents said
In May, thanks to messages sent via AN0M, Spanish officials located this almost 1.6 tonne shipment of cocaine in hollowed out pineapples, according to the court filing
‘We are on standbys to receive the package today bro,’ Ford said.
‘Tell him the two available addresses for now is the hotel and the mechanic shop. The next mechanic shop and hotel I waiting on final approval to have them on board.’
Ford, believed to be in Australia, later sent his mate, thought to be in Armenia, pictures of a consignment notice showing a delivery was being made from a homewares centre in Carlsbad, California to the Sydney workshop.
The pair also allegedly exchanged photographs of cocaine bricks and their apparent movements. The FBI sought a warrant to search an email address associated with the alleged shipment.
AN0M EXPLAINED: HOW SECRET POLICE APP WORKED
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
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.
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.
The app was invitation-only as of Tuesday morning – before the page was sensationally taken down and replaced with a warning by the FBI
In Australia, some 21 execution plots were foiled and drug and gun smuggling networks dismantled.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.
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.
This is how the Anom.io website looked as of late Tuesday morning
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.