Hi-tech stab leads to global crackdown on organized crime, over 800 prisoners

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© Reuters. This undated handout photo dated June 8, 2021 shows the Australian Federal Police during their Operation Ironside against organized crime. Australian Federal Police / handout via REUTERS

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By Colin Packham and Toby Sterling

CANBERRA / AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – Global law enforcement agencies hacked into an app used by criminals and read millions of encrypted messages, resulting in hundreds of arrests of organized crime people in 18 countries, officials said Tuesday.

The operation by the Australian and European police and the US FBI has captured suspects in Australia, Asia, Europe, South America and the Middle East who are involved in global drug trafficking, officials said.

Over 800 alleged organized crime members were arrested and $ 148 million in cash was seized in raids around the world. Tons of drugs have also been seized, officials said.

Referred to as Operation Trojan Shield by the FBI, it was one of the largest infiltrations and takeovers of a specialized encrypted network.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the operation had “hit a heavy blow on organized crime – not just in this country but around the world”.

“This is a turning point in the history of Australian law enforcement,” Morrison told reporters in Sydney.

Australian Federal Police Commissioner Reece Kershaw said police arrested 224 people there, including members of outlawed motorcycle gangs, while New Zealand arrested 35 people.

In Europe, officials said 75 Swedish suspects have been arrested and over 60 have been detained in Germany. Forty-nine were arrested in Holland.

The operation was conceived by the Australian Police and the FBI in 2018, with US officials taking control of the messaging app An0m used by organized crime networks.

When an Australian underworld figure began distributing bespoke phones to its employees using the app as a secure means of communication, the police were able to monitor their messages. The gangs considered the system safe because the phones had no other functions – no voice or camera functions were loaded – and the app was encrypted.

Criminal groups in more than 100 countries got the phones, an FBI official said.

“We were in the back pockets of organized crime,” Kershaw said at the press conference. “They only talk about drugs, violence, mutual beatings, innocent people being murdered.”

The news was outrageous and there was no attempt to hide behind any type of code, he said.

“It was there to see including ‘we’re going to have a speedboat pick you up at this point’, ‘that’s who does this’ and so on.”

MARKED MAN

Kershaw said the Australian underworld character who fled the country “essentially built his own peers” by handing out the phones and was a scarred man.

“The sooner he gets in touch, the better for him and his family,” he said.

One assassination attempt learned by authorities included plans to attack a coffee shop with a machine gun while a family of five was also targeted. Authorities said they were able to prevent these attacks.

In executing Australia’s largest number of search warrants in one day, police seized 104 firearms, including a military-grade sniper rifle, and nearly A $ 45 million ($ 34.9 million) in cash on Monday. Approximately A $ 7 million was found in a safe buried under a garden shed in suburban Sydney.

A total of 525 charges have been filed, but authorities are expecting more in the coming weeks.

($ 1 = 1.2893 Australian dollars)

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