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The FBI has been operating an encrypted chat platform since 2018 to collect data on criminals

What just happened? A joint sting operating involving law enforcement agencies from several countries has resulted in the arrest of hundreds of suspects and the seizure of tons of drugs, more than 100 weapons and nearly $45 million in cash – and that’s just in Australia.

In 2018, the CEO of a company called Phantom Secure was taken into custody. Phantom Secure specialized in providing “hardened encrypted devices” that were sold exclusively to members of criminal organizations, allowing them to communicate with business associates without law enforcement being able to surveil their chats.

Following the CEO’s arrest, the FBI recruited a confidential human source (CHS) that had been developing a “next-gen” encrypted communications product meant to compete with services like Phantom Secure. The device, dubbed Anom, was supplied by the source to the FBI and put into circulation within the criminal underworld.

Anom devices retailed for as much as $2,000 each and could only send secure, encrypted messages in a closed-loop environment. Due to their cost and limited functionality, they weren’t really used by privacy-minded individuals but were a must-have for organized crime types.

Because they were seeded from an insider and other criminals used and vouched for them, they became somewhat of a hot commodity over time.

What the criminals didn’t know is that law enforcement had built a master key into the encryption system that was attached to each message, allowing police to decrypt and store messages as they were transmitted.

The sting operation went on for a few years and involved numerous law enforcement agencies including the FBI, the DEA, Europol and the Australian Federal Police. In its press release, the AFP said 224 offenders have been arrested on 526 charges in Australia since June 7.

“3.7 tonnes of drugs, 104 number of weapons, $44,934,457 million in cash, and assets expected to run into the millions of dollars, have been seized under Operation Ironside,” the AFP said.

The FBI said more than 12,000 devices were supplied worldwide to hundreds of criminal organizations, but has not yet commented on how many arrests it has made.

Image credit Motortion Films

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