The “Sting of the Century” just happened. But does it raise some hard questions?

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100s of organised crime figures across the world have been taken down in the “sting of the century” after using a covert encrypted messaging platform operated by police.  But are there difficult moral questions we need to ask as well?

The Australian Federal Police today said more arrests were likely under the three-year-old “Operation Ironside“. 

Search warrants were carried out in 18 countries yesterday in what Europol called “the most sophisticated effort to date to disrupt the activities of criminals operating from all four corners of the world”. 

The operation saw the AFP, in partnership with the US FBI, trick criminals for years into using an encrypted messaging platform called AN0M secretly run by the police.

The platform consisted of an app and a mobile phone that could send expiring messages, take pictures and videos, and distort voices. Users could only communicate with other users of the platform. 

The phone itself appeared to be a normal smartphone but had little function beyond the app; no ability to make calls or access the internet. A foreign SIM card was used to connect to Australian mobile networks to avoid local ID laws, the Courier Mail reported. 

The AN0M app was hidden behind a calculator icon and required a PIN or password to open.  

Search warrants were carried out in 18 countries yesterday in what Europol called “the most sophisticated effort to date to disrupt the activities of criminals operating from all four corners of the world”. 

How police convinced crims the app was legitimate

Police managed to convince criminals of the platform’s legitimacy by operating an exclusive, underground sales model – potential buyers could only be referred to a seller through an existing user, or someone who could vouch for their criminal legitimacy.  

No names were required, and payment of the $1500-$2500 subscription fee could be delivered in Bitcoin. 

As high-profile organised crime figures increasingly affirmed the platform’s integrity, its popularity grew amongst the criminal underground and adoption boomed. 

Around 9000 people were using AN0M devices across the world, including up to 1700 in Australia, police said. 

“These criminal influencers put the AFP in the back pocket of hundreds of alleged offenders,” AFP commissioner Reece Kershaw said. 

“Essentially, they have handcuffed each other by endorsing and trusting AN0M and openly communicating on it – not knowing we were watching the entire time.” 

As a result, law enforcement quietly observed as criminals discussed plots to kill, mass drug trafficking, money laundering and gun distribution; police said they were able to read more than 20 million messages.

Now, 224 individuals have been arrested on 526 charges across every mainland Australian state. 

Since 2018, almost 4 tonnes of drugs, 104 weapons, $45 million in cash, and millions of dollars’ worth of assets have been seized under Operation Ironside, the AFP said. 

The force claims many of the offenders are linked to Australian-based Italian mafia, outlaw motorcycle gangs, and Asian crime syndicate and Albanian organised crime groups. 

It says it was able to prevent a number of crimes including a planned mass shooting in an undisclosed Australian suburb. 

Around 9000 people were using AN0M devices across the world, including up to 1700 in Australia, police said. 

How the operation worked – infiltration

Operation Ironside began life following law enforcement’s take-down of the encrypted platform Phantom Secure, which until 2018 had been a staple of the criminal underground.

This left a gap in the market that the AFP and FBI were keen to fill, the Australian force said. 

In an unsealed search warrant, the US Department of Justice revealed the FBI had gained access to the AN0M platform via an informant it had recruited after the Phantom Secure take-down. 

That informant had been developing AN0M as a successor, and offered the platform to the FBI in exchange for a potentially reduced sentence for charges they were facing.

The FBI and AFP reworked the AN0M system so that the police held the master key to every message sent through the app, enabling them to “decrypt and store the message as it is transmitted”. All without the knowledge of the user.

Kershaw said the idea for AN0M was developed “over a couple of beers” in 2018 between local and US law enforcement officers. 

“This world-first operation will give the AFP, state and territory police years of intelligence and evidence,” he said.  “There is also the potential for a number of cold cases to be solved because of Operation Ironside.” 

Ethical questions raised?

Notwithstanding the impressive infiltration achievements of law-enforcement authorities, the “sting of the century” raises some clear ethical questions in my view.

On the one hand, it is inherently praiseworthy to stop crime early, and some of those stopped in their tracks are dangerous drug barons and seriously under-world crime figures.

Notwithstanding this fact, the Western world (not unlike much of the rest of the world) has a dubious track record of abusing such powers for their own political goals.

We need look only a little in the past to the “War on Terror” which brought with it an incredible tendency for law enforcement to push the parcel by embedding within “radical networks”, to the point of baiting people to plan for and voice support for acts of terrorism.

In decades prior, law enforcement infiltrated civil rights movements, unions and other segments of society deemed problematic by those in power at the time.

The same can be said for the spectacularly expensive “war on drugs”, which continues to be fought to this day at a massive cost. Infiltration, baiting and entrapment have been part and parcel of that too, with an end nowhere on the horizon when alternative approaches to law enforcement could well provide better outcomes.

With the hindsight of history, much of this activity stands condemned. While the short-term gain of nabbing criminals in these spaces is alluring, the precedents it creates for law enforcement officials often raises troubling moral and ethical questions.

Would some of these people have committed a crime but for the planning encouraged by such encrypted platforms? Did the creation of this app and the networks it enabled lead to some who would otherwise be innocent engaging in actions they shouldn’t have?

None of these questions are easy, but in the euphoria of the moment, especially throughout Australian media, we ought also to take pause, reflect and think about the cost and precedent these stings come at.

Ahmed Khanji

Ahmed Khanji

Ahmed Khanji is the CEO of Gridware, a leading cybersecurity consultancy based in Sydney, Australia. An emerging thought leader in cybersecurity, Ahmed is an Adjunct Professor at Western Sydney University and regularly contributes to cybersecurity conversations in Australia. As well as his extensive background as a security advisor to large Australian enterprises, he is a regular keynote speaker and guest lecturer on offensive cybersecurity topics and blockchain.

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