“Operation Ironside”: Police tricked criminals with an app

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As of: June 9th, 2021 7:09 am

More than 800 suspects were arrested in police operations around the world. With an encrypted app, criminals believed they could communicate securely. Little did they know that the police had developed the program.

By Florian Flade, WDR, and Benedikt Strunz,
Ed

“Operation Ironside” was a deception during World War II. The Allies tricked the Nazis in the process, leading the Wehrmacht to believe in 1944 that the British Navy would soon be landing on the northern French coast. In order to pass the bogus information to the Germans, the British used several double agents.

Florian Flade

This week another “Operation Ironside” was announced. The name is probably a deliberate historical reference, because this time it is also about a deception – and about a hitherto unprecedented blow against organized crime. Europol and the FBI are calling the same action “Operation Trojan Shield”.

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Deceptive security

For years, criminals around the world are said to have used the mobile phone app “Anom” to conduct large-scale drug and arms deals and even contract killings. They probably thought the encrypted program was bug-proof, but in fact it was probably a trap: The American FBI and the Australian Federal Police AFP had manipulated the app. The investigators were able to read the chats in real time.

On Monday, several thousand police and customs officers finally moved out in at least sixteen countries around the globe, searched numerous apartments, offices and warehouses and arrested 800 suspects worldwide. Eight tons of cocaine, five tons of cannabis and two tons of crystal meth were seized. In addition, the investigators found a total of more than 140 million US dollars.

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In Germany, too, more than 150 objects were searched on Monday and more than 70 people were arrested, as the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) and the Public Prosecutor’s Office in Frankfurt am Main announced. More than 120 kilograms of marijuana, 25 kilograms of hashish, three kilograms of heroin, one kilogram of cocaine, more than 6,000 cannabis plants and 20 weapons as well as cash amounting to 250,000 euros had been seized. “So far, more than 20 preliminary proceedings against more than 80 suspects have been initiated in this investigation complex,” said the authorities.

A cell phone service only for criminals

The unusual operation with the manipulated communication platform began around three years ago. In March 2018, the FBI smashed the Canadian cell phone provider Phantom Secure, which had provided criminals around the world with allegedly tap-proof phones.

The company recently had more than 20,000 users, who are said to have paid around 2000 US dollars per cell phone and for using the encrypted app every six months. According to the investigators, these were exclusively criminals, especially drug dealers. Company boss Vincent Ramos was sentenced to nine years in prison and a payment of $ 80 million for assisting drug trafficking and money laundering.

From accomplice to informant

By breaking up Phantom Secure, the FBI field office in San Diego finally succeeded in recruiting an informant who apparently wanted to avoid jail time and was therefore willing to cooperate with the US authorities. The informant had previously sold Phantom Secure and crypto cell phones from Sky Global to criminal networks and was now developing a new product himself – called “Anom”.

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The source recruited offered the FBI to use this new app in the investigation and also suggested that he could use his existing customer network to distribute the program. According to US court documents, the informant, who had been in jail for six years for drug trafficking, received a reward of US $ 120,000 for his work, as well as around US $ 60,000 in expenses.

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Back door for investigators

The FBI investigators now had access to a crypto app that was apparently considered safe in criminal circles and therefore quickly found many new users. In cooperation with the Australian Federal Police AFP, the American investigators succeeded in programming “Anom” in such a way that from then on they could secretly read all chat messages and receive photos and videos. The Americans called this secret bugging “Operation Trojan Shield”, in Australia it was called “Operation Ironshield”.

The company’s website has since been seized and shut down by the authorities.

Image: www.anom.io

The criminals apparently had no idea that they had been using a state surveillance app involuntarily for years. The authorities had set up an alleged company website for “Anom”, including a YouTube channel and a Facebook presence, as a deception.

“Anom does not support surveillance measures,” it said on the site. Only authorities in Panama are entitled to request the company’s data, but in principle no user data is stored. “It is our policy to notify users immediately and provide them with a copy of any civil or government request.”

Surveillance made drug raids possible

“Anom” is said to have had more than 9,000 users recently, most of them in Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Australia and Serbia, according to the FBI. The app is said to have been used to handle drug deals on a massive scale, such as the delivery of several tons of cocaine from Ecuador to Belgium and the Netherlands. Some of these actions were stopped by the authorities and drugs were seized. Australian investigators said in a press conference on Tuesday that attacks were also prevented by monitoring “Anom”.

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However, it remains unclear how many crimes could possibly not be prevented. After all, the investigators are said to have had access to more than 25 million records. The legal usability of the information in Germany could also become a point of contention in court.

Criminals recommended the app

According to research by News Corp Australia, the Australian investigators achieved a special coup: They managed to get some of the most wanted criminals in the country not only to use the app themselves, but also to recommend and sell the supposedly safe program to other criminals. One of the biggest distributors of “Anom” is said to include a former rocker boss from Australia, who is said to have been in Turkey for a number of years.

In Australia there has been a special challenge for drug investigators for years: among criminals, including motorcycle gangs, but also South American and Asian networks, smuggling drugs into the country is extremely lucrative due to the island situation and strict border controls. The street sales value of imported drugs is comparatively high in Australia. Cocaine, for example, often costs many times more than what is paid for it in the USA or Europe.

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