At least 250 people have been arrested around the world in an international police operation that used “Trojan horse” technology to target drug dealers, mafias and other organised crime organisations.
Australian police said on Tuesday that they had disrupted 21 murder plots and seized 3.7 tonnes of drugs during the operation, which covertly monitored an encrypted communications platform used by criminal gangs.
The FBI in the US gained access to the AN0M platform, enabling Australian police to monitor more than 25m messages sent in real time. The communications allegedly detailed murder plots, drug smuggling and other illegal activities, Australian and US investigators said at a joint news conference that detailed the three-year police operation.
Police said 9,000 officers had taken part in co-ordinated raids in multiple countries and that there had been 224 arrests in Australia and 35 in New Zealand. Details of police operations in Germany, the US and other countries are due to be released later on Tuesday.
Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, said the international operation marked a watershed in law enforcement.
“The Australian government, as part of a global operation, has struck a heavy blow against organised crime — not just in this country, but one that will echo around organised crime around the world,” he said.
The police sting operation marked the latest use of technologies such as spyware and Trojan horse software during investigations by law enforcement authorities of organised criminals and terrorist organisations.
The AN0M app was installed on mobile phones that were stripped of any other capability. The phones, which were bought on the black market, could not make calls or send emails. They could only send messages to another device that had the organised crime app, Australian police said in a statement.
The devices circulated organically and grew in popularity among criminals, who were confident of the app’s security because high-profile organised crime figures vouched for its integrity, the police said.
Greg Barton, a counter-terrorism expert at Deakin University in Melbourne, said deploying the Trojan horse software on modified phones was a brilliant example of using social engineering to fight organised crime.
“Australian police authorities and their counterparts around the world will have gathered more insight into the workings of organised criminals and disrupted their operations for a period,” he said.
“These are important temporary victories in endless cat and mouse battles with criminals.”