The trust criminals had in encrypted communications was misplaced, international police forces have warned, after more than 800 suspects were arrested in the largest ever crack down on encrypted criminal activities.
The FBI and Australian Federal Police worked together to develop an encrypted device service and company called Anom in 2018, which gathered a strong reputation among hundreds of criminal organisations as being a secure and reliable platform for organising illegal activities.
Unknown to them, police were accessing, decrypting and reading 27m messages over an 18-month period, observing more than 300 criminal syndicates operating in more than 100 countries.
Anom sold more than 12,000 encrypted devices, offering attractive features including the ability to wipe the phone remotely and duress passwords (used to alert associates that they’re been compromised) to criminals including Italian organised crime gangs, motorcycle groups and international drug traffickers.
The majority of the messages were sent in Dutch, German and Swedish and could be unscrambled and read by the authorities in near-real time, giving them unique insights into how criminals move drugs, guns and money, and organise murders.
“Up to the present moment, thousands of criminal users wrongly believe themselves to be unobserved in their communication via this service,” said Jannine van den Berg, chief commissioner of the Dutch National Police during a Europol press conference in the Hague.
“It had a good reputation among criminals, it was usually promoted as being deplatformed that should be used for its absolute reliability – but nothing was further from the truth.”
The FBI worked with Europol and 16 other countries – including the UK – to “mitigate more than 100 threats to life” (planned murders), searching more than 700 home searches and recovering more than $48m (£34m) in various currencies and cryptocurrencies, 250 firearms and 55 luxury vehicles.
Investigators also uncovered photos of hundreds of tonnes of cocaine concealed in shipments of fruits and concealed in canned goods, which helped them to eventually seize over eight tons of cocaine, 22 tons of cannabis and cannabis resin, two tons of amphetamine and methamphetamine and six tons of synthetic drugs precursors.
The operation, which will fuel numerous spin-off busts in the next few weeks, represents an “unprecedented blow to criminal networks,” Commander Jennifer Hurst of the Australian Federal Police told the conference.
“This operation has demonstrated the strength and collaboration that exists between international law enforcement agencies. When we work together our reach is global and we are formidable,” she said.
“The trust that criminals had in encrypted communications is misplaced. Wherever criminals turn to next, they do so knowing that law enforcement has won back the advantage.”
Criminal networks have increasingly turned to encrypted platforms to keep their activities undercover, Europol warned, pointing out that law enforcement in Belgium, France and the Netherlands have successfully blocked some networks from using encrypted services.