Hundreds Arrested in Global Sting Using App Run by F.B.I.


MELBOURNE, Australia — The cellphones, procured on the black market, carried out a single operate hidden behind a calculator app: sending encrypted messages and images.

For years, organized crime figures across the globe relied on the units to orchestrate worldwide drug shipments, coordinate the trafficking of arms and explosives, and focus on contract killings, legislation enforcement officers mentioned. Users trusted the units’ safety a lot that they typically laid out their plans not in code, however in plain language, mentioning particular smuggling vessels and drop-off factors.

Unbeknown to them, nevertheless, the complete community was really a classy sting run by the F.B.I., in coordination with the Australian police.

On Tuesday, international legislation enforcement officers revealed the unprecedented scope of the three-year operation, saying that they had intercepted over 20 million messages in 45 languages, and arrested at the least 800 individuals, most of them in the previous two days, in greater than a dozen nations. Using the messages, U.S. court docket papers say, the authorities have opened a barrage of worldwide investigations into drug trafficking, cash laundering and “high-level public corruption.”

The F.B.I.’s operation, according to court documents that the Justice Department unsealed on Monday, had its origins in early 2018 after the bureau dismantled a Canadian-based encryption service called Phantom Secure. That company, officials said, supplied encrypted cellphones to drug gangs, like Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel, and other criminal groups.

Seeing a void in the underground market, the F.B.I. recruited a former Phantom Secure distributor who had been developing a new encrypted communications system called Anom. The informant agreed to work for the F.B.I. and let the bureau control the network for the possibility of a reduced prison sentence, according to the court documents. The F.B.I. paid the informant $120,000, the documents said.

Anom devices were cellphones that had been stripped of all normal functions. Their only working app was disguised as the calculator function: After entering a code, users could send messages and photos with end-to-end encryption.

Over three years, more than 12,000 Anom devices were sold to over 300 criminal syndicates operating in more than 100 countries, according to Europol. The devices cost varied by location but were generally sold, court papers say, on six-month subscriptions available for $1,700 in the United States.

Working with the Australian authorities, the F.B.I. and the informant developed a “master key” that allowed them to reroute the messages to a third country and decrypt them, ultimately intercepting more than 27 million messages.

The authorities also relied on the informant to get the devices into the highly insular criminal networks. The informant started in October 2018 by offering the devices to three other distributors with connections to organized crime in Australia.

A big break, law enforcement officials said, came when they were able to get one of the devices into the hands of Joseph Hakan Ayik, an Australian who fled the country a decade ago and whom the police believe has been directing drug imports from Turkey. Mr. Ayik was named as the top defendant in the racketeering indictment unsealed in San Diego along with 16 others from Australia, Finland, Sweden, Colombia, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.

Jean-Philippe Lecouffe, deputy executive director of Europol, said the operation gave law enforcement “exceptional insight into the criminal landscape.”

Through the encrypted cellphones, criminals organized the shipment of cocaine from Ecuador to Belgium in a container concealed within cans of tuna, according to U.S. court documents. Cocaine was also trafficked in French diplomatic sealed envelopes out of Bogotá, Colombia’s capital.

The Australian authorities acknowledged that Anom had carried only a small percentage of the total volume of encrypted communications sent by criminal networks. But as recently as this spring, U.S. federal authorities sought to boost its market share. In March, for instance, prosecutors in San Diego indicted the leaders of one of Anom’s chief competitors, Sky Global, “driving their customer base” toward Anom, an F.B.I. official said on Tuesday.

Anom also had a built-in advantage: Those running it were able to listen — directly — to the target audience and give users what they wanted.

After users spoke of desiring smaller, newer phones, the authorities began to provide them.

Australian officials said they had revealed the operation on Tuesday because of the need to disrupt dangerous plots currently in motion and because of limited time frames for legal authorities invoked to intercept the communications.



Source link Nytimes.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *