Global gangsters caught in encrypted phone sting

Australian authorities were part of a massive international operation that has led to hundreds of arrests worldwide

Thousands of global underworld figures used encrypted phones to coordinate drug deals, arms transfers and gangland hits, unaware law enforcement agencies planted the devices as part of a worldwide sting revealed Tuesday.

Over three years, “Operation Trojan Shield” helped distribute thousands of supposedly secure “hardened encrypted devices” to operatives within the mafia, Asian crime syndicates, drug cartels and outlaw motorcycle gangs as part of an elaborate FBI-led plot, according to Australian police.

The evidence prompted hundreds of arrests and foiled several large-scale drugs shipments, according to officials from several countries and unsealed US court documents.

The operation began when the FBI infiltrated a similar encrypted  system called “Phantom Secure” and dismantled another called “Sky Global.”

To fill the void, “the FBI operated its own encrypted device company, called ‘AN0M’,” the New Zealand police added.

The devices are said to have had no email, call or GPS services and could only message other AN0M phones.

“Criminals needed to know a criminal to get a device,” the Australian Federal Police said in a statement.

“The devices organically circulated and grew in popularity among criminals, who were confident of the legitimacy of the app because high-profile organised crime figures vouched for its integrity,” Australian police said.

The cover appeared to be blown in March 2021 when a blogger detailed AN0M security flaws and claimed it was a scam linked to Australia, the United States and other members of the FiveEyes intelligence sharing network. The post was later deleted.

The Australian Federal Police said that as a result of the operation, a total of 224 people were now facing more than 500 charges in Australia alone, while six underground drug labs were shut down and firearms and Aus$45 million (US$35 million) in cash was seized.

“We allege they’ve been trafficking illicit drugs into Australia at an industrial scale.”

Detective superintendent Greg Williams said 35 people had been arrested across the country on 900 “serious drug dealing, money laundering and other conspiracy-type charges” and were due to appear in court Tuesday.

“Warrants are coming in and we expect a number of other arrests to be undertaken,” Williams told reporters in Auckland.

AN0M’s website — which once offered “military grade” encryption services and devices with special features like “light and dark” display themes — was unavailable Tuesday, with a message from authorities that the “domain has been seized.”

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