The Australian Federal Police have admitted they didn’t actually “create” the encrypted app used by criminals but secretly run by the FBI, and got involved only “just before” it was released to crooks.
The AFP has clarified that it was behind the capability to decrypt and read the messages on the ANoM app, but didn’t actually build the app.
In fact, ANoM was initially developed – and then given to police – by criminals who had worked on previous encrypted communications that had been busted by the FBI, according to newly-unsealed court documents filed in US courts.
“The app, modified devices and platform had been worked on for a considerable amount of time by platform developers prior to law enforcement’s involvement,” an AFP spokesperson told The New Daily.
“Law enforcement became involved just before the product was released to an expectant market.”
The app was secretly run by the FBI and AFP, with criminals around the world using it to brazenly discuss violence, drug deals and weapons trafficking. Police around the globe flicked the switch on Tuesday, disabling ANoM, making thousands of arrests, and seizing huge quantities of drugs, cash and guns.
It’s been reported in some media that the AFP “created” ANoM, with the idea coming after a conversation “over a few beers” between federal police and FBI officers. Asked specifically, twice, on Tuesday how the app was created, AFP Commissioner Reece Kershaw didn’t answer directly.
Commissioner Kershaw would say only that the elaborate three-year sting was legal, and the AFP had used a controversial encryption-busting law, the Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Access and Assistance), known as TOLA, in its investigation.
Asked again “who set it up?”, Commissioner Kershaw said: “The FBI had the lead on this” and the AFP “provided a technical capability” to decrypt messages.
“I wasn’t there, but as you know, some of the best ideas come over a couple of beers,” he said to a later question.
But the AFP has confirmed the app was developed well before Australian authorities were looped into the FBI’s Operation Trojan Shield. Federal police were involved in “management” of the platform, then decrypting information harvested from the app.
The New Daily understands that, essentially, the FBI had access to the app and the AFP developed the capability to decrypt communications sent through it.
A recently unsealed court filing, lodged by the FBI in the United States District Court in May, says law enforcement obtained ANoM after a criminal informant offered it to them sometime after March 2018.
“San Diego FBI agents recruited a Confidential Human Source who had been developing the ‘next generation’ encrypted communications product,” the court filing states.
This “confidential human source” was reportedly involved in distributing other similar apps, known as Phantom Secure and Sky Global, and “invested a substantial amount of money into the development of
a new hardened encrypted device”.
“The CHS offered this next generation device, named “ANoM,” to the FBI to use in ongoing and new investigations. The CHS also agreed to offer to distribute ANoM devices to some of the CHS’s existing network of distributors of encrypted communications devices,” the filing states.
Phantom Secure, a similar messaging platform used by criminals, was dismantled and shut down when its founder was arrested by the FBI in March 2018.
AFP assistant commissioner Nigel Ryan told Sunrise on Wednesday that the “quiet drinks”, where the concept for police running their own encrypted app was said to have formed, were in celebration “after we took down the Phantom Secure network in 2018”.
According to the court filing, the confidential source, worked with the FBI “in exchange for the possibility of having a reduced sentence”. The filing said the source was paid US$120,000 ($A155,000) by the FBI “for services” and another $60,000 for living and travel expenses.
The court filing was posted on the US government records site PACER, and shared with The New Daily by Seamus Hughes, a researcher at Washington DC’s George Washington University.
The AFP wouldn’t tell reveal exactly when or how ANoM fell into its hands, but said the app’s “did not know … law enforcement agencies were involved in the management of the platform”.
“Law enforcement agencies influenced the development of the platform to ensure the product remained attractive to the target market as well as containing or omitting functions to best suit law enforcement purposes,” the AFP spokesperson said.
AFP documents claim its investigators “supercharged” the ANoM app, but add “how the tool worked cannot be disclosed”.
The US court filing sheds some light, stating the FBI, AFP and the confidential human source “built a master key into the existing encryption system”. It was said to “surreptitiously [attach] to each message and enables law enforcement to decrypt and store the message as it is transmitted.”
The AFP provided the highly skilled-technical staff, and capability to decrypt and read encrypted communications in real time, giving law enforcement an edge it had never had before. pic.twitter.com/99eQnN5XMe
— AFP (@AusFedPolice) June 8, 2021
The AFP spruiked its work in decrypting the communications, releasing a video on social media showing messages being unscrambled “in real time”.
The FBI said its access “worked like a blind carbon copy function in an email.”
“A copy of every message being sent from each device was sent to a server in a third-party country where the messages were collected and stored,” the FBI said in a statement.