It was supposed to be the underworld's impenetrable communication tool, a digital safe space to plot crimes ranging from drug trafficking to murder away from the prying eyes of the law.
But for nearly three years, an encrypted app used by criminals was covertly monitored by the FBI and Australia's Federal Police (AFP) — leading to hundreds of arrests and tens of millions of dollars in asset seizures, authorities revealed on Tuesday.
In a statement, the AFP said they and the FBI had been reading the clandestine communications of criminals since 2018 on the ANoM app — a black-market product only accessible on specially prepared mobile phones.
According to the AFP, intelligence gathered from the decrypted messages led to the arrest of 224 suspects on more than 500 charges and the seizure of 3.7 metric tons of drugs and nearly $35 million in cash over the past three years in Australia.
A number of those charged are allegedly linked to Australian-based Italian mafia, outlaw motorcycle gangs, Asian crime syndicates and Albanian organized crime, the AFP added.
"Operation Ironside," as the investigation was named, began three years ago as a collaboration between several global law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, the AFP, New Zealand police and Europol.
Speaking at a news conference on Tuesday, AFP Commissioner Reece Kershaw said multiple criminal plots were also foiled thanks to law enforcement access to the app, including a planned mass shooting at an Australian suburban cafe and the assassination of a family of five.
ANoM could only be found on phones bought through the black market, which had been stripped of the capability to make calls or send emails, according to the AFP. The phones could only send messages to another device that had the app and criminals needed to know another criminal to get a device.
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