US and Australia arrest 'hundreds' in encrypted messaging sting

An image of encrypted data on a screen
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

US and Australian authorities have arrested hundreds of suspected criminals that were tricked into using an encrypted messaging app created by the FBI.

The Australian Federal Police (AFP) led the operation, codenamed Operation Ironside, which saw the police force work for almost three years in collaboration with the FBI.

The FBI developed an app named 'Anom' and began running it without the knowledge of the criminal underworld. The AFP provided highly skilled technical staff and capabilities to decrypt and read encrypted communications in real time, which the AFP said it gave "law enforcement an edge it had never had before".

Anom was installed on mobile phones that were stripped of other capabilities. These devices could be bought on the black market, and could not make calls or send emails. They were only able to send messages to another device that had app installed, and criminals had to know other criminals to get a device.

The devices circulated organically and grew in popularity among criminals, who became confident of the legitimacy of the app as high-profile organised crime figures vouched for its integrity, said the AFP.

"These criminal influencers put the AFP in the back pocket of hundreds of alleged offenders," said AFP Commissioner Reece Kershaw. "Essentially, they have handcuffed each other by endorsing and trusting Anom and openly communicating on it – not knowing we were watching the entire time."

Kershaw revealed at a press conference that around 1,600 to 1,700 individuals were using the app in Australia, out of around 9,000 globally.

He said that the access to the encrypted messages was granted lawfully through Australia's Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Act (TOLA) 2018, the first time authorities had implemented it, along with "a legal authority from the FBI".

He added that part of the reason the authorities revealed the existence of the app now was partly down to "legal authorities" and the fact there was a legal time frame on the operation.

Kershaw said that one of the individuals responsible for circulating the devices installed with the app, Hakan Ayik, has essentially "set up his own colleagues". Ayik is allegedly living in Turkey and is alleged to be one of Australia's biggest drug traffickers.

"And my view would be [that] the sooner he hands himself in and to look after his family, he's a wanted individual, the better for him and his family," he added.

Operation Ironside has led to the arrest of 224 offenders on 526 charges. Since 2018, the operation has seized 3.7 tonnes of drugs, 104 weapons, over $44 million in cash, and assets expected to run in the millions of dollars. It has also allegedly exposed criminals with links to South American drug cartels, as well as Middle Eastern and European criminal syndicates.

Similarly, New Zealand Police was also involved in Operation Trojan Shield, the FBI's codename for the operation, and made 35 arrests, with over 900 charges laid. $3.7 million in assets have also been seized.

Zach Marzouk

Zach Marzouk is a former ITPro, CloudPro, and ChannelPro staff writer, covering topics like security, privacy, worker rights, and startups, primarily in the Asia Pacific and the US regions. Zach joined ITPro in 2017 where he was introduced to the world of B2B technology as a junior staff writer, before he returned to Argentina in 2018, working in communications and as a copywriter. In 2021, he made his way back to ITPro as a staff writer during the pandemic, before joining the world of freelance in 2022.