The FBI secretly ran an encrypted chat platform for years that allowed it to intercept 20 million messages from international criminal organizations.
Hundreds of arrests were made in 18 countries as part of the investigation known as Operation Trojan Shield.
The suspects included members of the Italian mafia and outlaw motorcycle gangs.
And thethrew Australian police arrested 224 criminals and seized 3.7 tons of drugs and $44.9 million in cash and assets.
This campaign came mainly as a result of the demise of the popular encrypted phone service known as Phantom Secure.
After this project was shut down and its CEO was arrested in 2018, the FBI used a source to publish a new chatting app for criminal networks called Anom.
The FBI has built a master key into its encryption system that is unknown to those who have used devices that feature the platform.
This allowed the FBI to monitor each chat message and enable it to decrypt and store the messages as they were sent.
Over the following months, the chat app grew naturally on the back of beta testing in Australia and the dismantling of two additional crypto phone companies, Encrochat and Sky Global.
The FBI used its source to distribute Anom devices to criminals who used messaging channels that no longer exist.
Phones grew in popularity in the underworld after high-profile criminals ensured the app’s safety, Australian police said.
The Australian Federal Police Commissioner said: Criminal influencers have connected law enforcement agencies to hundreds of alleged perpetrators. And they did this by endorsing and trusting AN0M and communicating publicly about it – without knowing it was a hack.
Overall, law enforcement categorized 20 million messages from a total of 11,800 devices located in more than 90 countries.
Encrypted chat platform for criminals:
The FBI said that phones outside the United States forwarded a Bcc-encrypted copy of the message to an iBot server.
It was decrypted from the cipher code and then immediately re-encrypted with the FBI cipher code.
The message was then directed to another FBI-owned iBot server, where it was decrypted and its content made available for viewing.
Each Anom user has also been linked to a specific Jabber account by the FBI or Anom official.
A Jabber account is similar to a BlackBerry Messenger PIN. It is described as either a constant and unique alphanumeric definition or a combination of two English words.
Anom users were also able to specify their own usernames. They can change their list of usernames over time.
As part of the process, the FBI kept a list of Jabber accounts and the corresponding screen names of Anom users.
There are approximately 9,000 Anom devices currently active. The FBI has identified more than 300 transnational criminal organizations using the chat platform.
Australian police, who helped intercept local messages, said the communications included murder plots, mass drug trafficking and weapons distribution.
Additional criminals include those linked to an Asian criminal gang and Albanian organized crime.
Meanwhile, New Zealand police have arrested 35 people and seized $3.7 million in assets as part of their interconnected operation.