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Global crime bust involving U.S., 15 other nations nabs hundreds, drugs, cash

Jannine van den Berg, chief constable of the central police unit in the Netherlands, speaks to reporters Tuesday during a Europol news conference in The Hague, Netherlands, about one of the largest and most sophisticated law enforcement operations to date in the fight against encrypted criminal activities. Photo by Jerry Lampen/EPA-EFE
Jannine van den Berg, chief constable of the central police unit in the Netherlands, speaks to reporters Tuesday during a Europol news conference in The Hague, Netherlands, about one of the largest and most sophisticated law enforcement operations to date in the fight against encrypted criminal activities. Photo by Jerry Lampen/EPA-EFE

June 8 (UPI) -- Authorities worldwide have arrested hundreds of suspects connected to organized crime after decrypting messages sent over an FBI-controlled smartphone application popular with the criminal underworld, authorities said Tuesday.

The Australian Federal Police were the first to announce the results of the international three-year covert operation conducted with the U.S. FBI that targeted organized crime worldwide through the covert administration of encrypted messaging app called ANoM.

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The law enforcement coalition consisted of 16 countries, including the United States, Britain, Australia, Austria, Sweden, Denmark, Estonia, Lithuania, Norway, New Zealand and Germany.

"The Australian government, as part of a global operation, has struck a heavy blow against organized crime -- not just in this country, but one that will echo around organized crime around the world," Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters.

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"This is a watershed moment in Australian law enforcement history."

The operation began in 2018 with authorities targeting members of organized crime through the use of ANoM app that the FBI was secretly running, authorities said.

Police said the app was installed on mobile phones bought on the black market that were stripped of all other capabilities, including the ability to make calls or send emails. The only function they had, authorities said, was the ability to contact others who had the app.

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"Criminals needed to know a criminal to get a device," the AFP said, adding that the phone organically grew in popularity among criminals confident in the legitimacy of the app due to its use by high-profile organized crime figures.

Europol, which participated in the operation, Trojan Shield, said in a statement more than 12,000 encrypted devices were in use in 100 countries by more than 300 criminal syndicates, including Italian organized crime, outlaw motorcycle gangs and international drug trafficking organizations.

More than 27 million messages were obtained and reviewed over an 18-month period.

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Australian police provided skilled technical staff to decrypt messages in real time, giving law enforcement officers information used to thwart crime, "potentially saving the lives of a significant number innocent bystanders."

"Essentially, we have been in the back pockets of organized crime and operationalized the criminal takedown like we have never seen," AFP Commissioner Reece Kershaw told reporters, adding that the targeted criminals had no idea they were being surveilled.

"When you get access -- and it will come out in court -- you'll see all they talk about is drugs, violence, hits on each other, innocent people who are going to be murdered. A whole range of things," he said. "Very brazen. We haven't seen it done like that. No attempt to hide behind any kind of codified kind of conversation."

More than 800 people were arrested in 700 locations, Europol said, and police seized 8 tons of cocaine, 22 tons of cannabis products, 2 tons of synthetic drugs, 6 tons of synthetic drugs precursors, 250 firearms, 55 luxury vehicles and tens of millions in various currencies.

"This law enforcement operation is exceptional by its global outcomes," Europol Deputy Executive Director Jean-Philippe Lecouffe told reporters.

"This international coalition with the continuous support of Europol carried out one of the largest and most sophisticated law enforcement operations to date in the fight against encrypted criminal activities."

In New Zealand, Australia and Sweden, authorities separately said they had arrested dozens on hundreds of charges.

Calvin Shivers, assistant director of the FBI's Criminal Investigation Division, told reporters that on top of the arrests and seizures, police stopped more than 100 threats to life and called the international collaboration "unprecedented."

"And the results are staggering," he said.

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