Criminals worldwide tricked into using FBI-run messaging app

ITV News Global Security Editor Rohit Kachroo explains how decoy phones enabled the downfall of criminals from across the globe

Hundreds of criminals across the world, including in the UK, have been dealt a "heavy blow" after being tricked into using an app secretly run by the FBI.

A major international sting meant criminal gangs thought the encrypted app, called ANOM, was safe from snooping when, in fact, authorities for months had been monitoring millions of messages about drug smuggling, money laundering and even planned killings.

The app was part of a worldwide sting called Operation Trojan Shield, which was led by the FBI and involved the UK National Crime Agency, US Drug Enforcement Administration, the European Union police agency Europol and law enforcement agencies in more than a dozen countries.

Authorities said the app was installed on stripped-back mobile phones and its popularity grew organically in criminal circles after it was vouched for by some high-profile underworld figures, described as “criminal influencers”.

The UK National Crime Agency said it had carried out “multiple operations” as a result of the sting, code-named Operation Trojan Shield. A spokeswoman said: “The National Crime Agency is proud to have been a partner in what has been an innovative and complex operation to target criminals operating globally and using encrypted communications platforms.

“As part of this, the NCA has conducted multiple operations targeting organised crime groups involved in drug trafficking and money laundering.

Australian police raid the homes of criminals duped by the ANOM app

“This operation has demonstrated that, in the face of the rapidly evolving threat from criminals exploiting the fast expansion of technology, the NCA is committed to working across international borders to target organised criminals, wherever they are and however they communicate.”

The NCA would not reveal further details of the operations carried out or the estimated number of Anom users in the UK. Australian authorities said they arrested 224 people and seized more than four tons of drugs and 35 million US dollars (£24.7 million) in an ongoing operation that dates back three years.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters it was a watershed moment that would keep the nation’s communities safer.

A large amount of cash which was seized during a police raid Credit: New Zealand Police via AP

“Today, the Australian government, as part of a global operation, has struck a heavy blow against organised crime,” Mr Morrison said.

“Not just in this country, but one that will echo around organised crime around the world.”

Australian Federal Police commissioner Reece Kershaw said the sting, called Operation Ironside in Australia, was borne from a longstanding partnership between his agency and the FBI.

He said they had shut down six clandestine laboratories and stopped 21 death threats, including saving a family of five.

“We have arrested the alleged kingmakers behind these crimes, prevented mass shootings in suburbs and frustrated serious and organised crime by seizing their ill-gotten wealth,” Mr Kershaw said.

A bag of marijuana seized in the operation Credit: New Zealand Police via AP

Detective Superintendent Greg Williams, who leads a New Zealand police group fighting organised crime, said the sting was conceived in 2018 after the FBI took down a previous secure app favoured by criminals, Phantom Secure.

Mr Williams said that left a void in the market that authorities helped fill with the ANOM app.

“We just can’t speak highly enough of the FBI and the work they have done in the background here,” Mr Williams said.

He said New Zealand was a small country and relied on the intelligence-gathering capabilities of its Five Eyes partners, which include the US, Australia, Canada and Britain.

The bust echoes the previous success of the hack by French authorities last year of Encrochat, another secret communication service that was used by thousands of criminals