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FBI sold crime syndicates on an encrypted phone app in wild sting operation

An international law enforcement coalition announced Tuesday that it was able to arrest more than 800 alleged members of organized crime syndicates in more than a dozen countries, amounting to what Europol Deputy Executive Director Jean-Philippe Lecouffe called "one of the largest and most sophisticated … operations to date in the fight against encrypted criminal activities." And it was all thanks to the popularity of an encrypted messaging app that was secretly controlled by the FBI.

Aided by the Australian police, a paid collaborator who had previously sold members of the criminal underworld on other encrypted devices, and — unwittingly — one of Australia's most-wanted crime bosses, the FBI began discreetly marketing its own platform, Anom, to the syndicates in 2018, The Washington Post reports. It grew in popularity, and over the course of the next three years, incriminating messages were unknowingly fed right into the hands of law enforcement agents.

The operation reportedly really picked up steam when Hakan Ayik, who is wanted in Australia, praised the device to his associates. Australian Federal Police Commissioner Reece Kershaw said that in doing so, he had "essentially set up his own colleagues." 

The operation, which The Washington Post notes was revealed Tuesday in part because "a warrant in a third country to forward messages to U.S. authorities expired" on Monday, "struck a heavy blow against organized crime," Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said. "To give you an idea of the magnitude of our penetration, we were able to actually see photographs of hundreds of tons of cocaine that were concealed in shipments of fruit," said Caitlin Shivers, assistant director of the FBI's Criminal Investigative Division. "The results are staggering." Read more at The Washington Post.