Global law enforcement agencies hacked into an app used by criminals and read millions of encrypted messages, leading to hundreds of arrests of organised crime figures in 18 countries.
The operation by Australian and European police and the FBI in the US ensnared suspects in Australia, Asia, Europe, South America and the Middle East involved in the narcotics trade, officials said on Tuesday.
More than 800 suspected members of organised crime gangs were arrested and $148m in cash seized in raids around the world. Drugs were also seized, the officials said.
Named Operation Trojan Shield by the FBI, it was one of the biggest infiltrations and takeovers of a specialised encrypted network.
The Australian prime minister said the operation “struck a heavy blow against organised crime – not just in this country, but one that will echo ... around the world”. “This is a watershed moment in Australian law enforcement history,” Scott Morrison added.
The country’s federal police commissioner, Reece Kershaw, said Australian officers had arrested 224 people, including members of outlawed motorcycle gangs, while New Zealand said it had detained 35 people.
In Europe, 75 Swedish suspects were arrested and more than 60 detained in Germany. Forty-nine were arrested in the Netherlands.
The operation was conceived by Australian police and the FBI in 2018, under which US officials took control of the An0m messaging app used by organised crime networks.
When an Australian underworld figure began distributing customised phones containing the app to his associates as a secure means to communicate, police could monitor their messages. The gangs believed the system was secure because the phones did not have any other capabilities – no voice or camera functions were loaded – and the app was encrypted.
Criminal groups in more than 100 countries were given the phones, an FBI official said.
“We have been in the back pockets of organised crime,” Kershaw said. “All they talk about is drugs, violence, hits on each other, innocent people who are going to be murdered.”
The messages were brazen and there was no attempt to hide behind any kind of code, he said. “It was there to be seen, including ‘We’ll have a speedboat meet you at this point’, ‘This is who will do this’ and so on.”
Kershaw said the Australian underworld figure, who had absconded from the country, had “essentially set up his own colleagues” by distributing the phones and was a marked man. “The sooner he hands himself in, the better for him and his family,” he said.