The AN0M app was developed by the FBI in 2018 and was introduced into the criminal underworld by police informants.
Picked up by high profile kingpins, including the most wanted man in Australia, AN0M proliferated across more than 12,000 devices and was used by more than 300 crime syndicates around the world over the last 18 months.
The app had to be installed on customized phones which were offered to gangsters via underground distributors for between $1,130 and $2,000.
The stripped down phones couldn’t make calls or send emails, and were fitted with foreign SIM cards which were supposed to dodge domestic snooping laws.
Crooks could buy a six month subscription to use the app – with all proceeds going straight to the police.
The app was accessed by entering a PIN number into the phone’s calculator, the stuff of spy dramas. Much like other messaging apps, it allowed users to speak by text and share photos and videos.
AN0M’s website, which was only deleted in the early hours of this morning, made the technology sound bulletproof.
The company purported that it was based in famously neutral Switzerland and boasted of ‘military grade encrypt and sanitize’ technology.
The app was invitation-only as of Tuesday morning – before the page was sensationally taken down and replaced with a warning by the FBI
For its encryption, it claimed to use ‘OMEMO Double Ratchet Algorithm … independently audited by Dutch security research group Radically Open Security’.
That may have been an in-joke – as all the supposedly self-destructing messages sent on the app was ‘radically open’ for the authorities to read.
The devices were indeed encrypted, but the FBI had the key to unlock the communications.
New Zealand police boss Greg Williams said: ‘It’s much like WhatsApp. That means it should be very, very secure but, of course, it wasn’t. It was totally compromised from the very outset.
He added: ‘The communication point-to-point was totally secure. But the FBI was listening in all along and the keys to unlock it. It’s almost as if the FBI had set up a meeting for criminals to come and discuss things.’
Police watched in real time as alleged crooks spilled their secrets to one another on their own app.
Around the world, intelligence gleaned from the app was used in more than 800 arrests and led to the search of more than 700 locations.
A total of 6 tons of cocaine, 5 tons of cannabis, 2 tons of methamphetamine and over $147million in cash were seized, due to AN0M.
The FBI said that over 100 threats to life were mitigated.
Why did the operation stop? There is no clear rationale given about why the operation stopped now. However a mixture of suspicions, legal hurdles and strategy may have contributed.
Law enforcement did not have truly real-time access to phone activity but instead, all sent messages were blind copied or ‘BCCed’ to FBI servers where they were decrypted.
‘Enforce your right to privacy’: This is how the ANOM website advertised its product – with users not realizing that law enforcement officials could read each and every message
One server was in a third country where the warrant was due to expire on June 7, 2021.
But even ahead of that deadline, suspicions were being raised.
In March ‘canyouguess67’ posted on WordPress that ANOM was a ‘scam’ and that a device he had tested was ‘in constant contact with’ Google servers and relayed data to non-secure servers in Australia and the United States.
‘I was quite concerned to see the amount of IP addresses relating to many corporations within the 5 eyes Governments (Australia, USA, Canada, UK, NZ who share information with one another),’ the post said before it was deleted.
In addition, one stated aim for ‘Operation Trojan Shield’ was to undermine trust in encrypted devices, a goal that could only be widely achieved when the operation was made public.