Watch: Europol releases raid footage after global crime sting
Authorities have arrested hundreds of people around the world – including many in the UK – after they were duped into using an encrypted messaging service run by the FBI.
Messages posted on the "Anom" messaging app about drug dealing, money laundering and planned murders were accessed by authorities in the UK, US, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.
One murder plot that authorities discovered involved plans to attack a cafe with a machine gun, while a family of five was also targeted.
Authorities said they were able to prevent these attacks, and the operation has now led to 800 arrests across 16 countries, according to law enforcement agency Europol.
Anom was the brainchild of the FBI and Australian police.
According to US court documents, it was set up in 2018 when a former drug trafficker – who had been creating a new hardened encrypted phone with a bespoke app called ANOM – was engaged by the FBI.
The source came on board after authorities dismantled the Phantom Secure encrypted smartphone network and arrested its CEO in 2018.
For at least a decade, organised crime groups have used phones like Phantom Secure to run drug deals, hits on rivals and launder illicit earnings without detection.
Among many of their features is that content can be remotely wiped if they are seized.
As one app was put out of business, the FBI decided it would launch its own, inserting a master key into the devices that attached to each message and enabled officers to decrypt and store them as they were transmitted.
The app grew to service 12,000 encrypted devices linked to more than 300 criminal gangs operating in more than 100 countries.
The UK's National Crime Agency (NCA) said it had carried out “multiple operations” as a result of the sting, codenamed 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.
“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 prime minister Scott Morrison said the operation "struck a heavy blow against organised crime – not just in this country, but one that will echo around organised crime around the world”.
Australian Federal Police Commissioner Reece Kershaw added: "We have been in the back pockets of organised crime.
"All they talk about is drugs, violence, hits on each other, innocent people who are going to be murdered.”
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.
Watch: How FBI spy phones led to a worldwide crime sting