The Federal Bureau of Investigation set up its own encrypted platform used by hundreds of criminals around the world in an "unprecedented" sting operation that resulted in more than 800 arrests in 18 countries, officials said.
The bureau, working with Australian and European authorities, arrested suspects in the narcotics trade throughout Australia, Asia, Europe, South America and the Middle East.
In raids around the world, more than 800 suspected members of organized crime groups were arrested, and $148 million in cash was recovered, along with tons of drugs, cryptocurrency, weapons and luxury cars.
At a news conference in San Diego, the bureau said its involvement in An0m, a supposedly secure encrypted messaging app that was secretly built and sold to organized criminal networks.
Federal investigators deliberately shut down the Canada-based Phantom Secure, which shut down in 2018 and was accused of providing customized end-to-end encrypted devices to criminals, and a second Canadian firm, Sky Global, which rolled up in March and was also accused of criminal activity.
Unsuspecting users soon flocked to An0m, mistaking it for a secure platform.
The bureau, in reality, received a blind copy of every message exchanged. By the end of the operation Monday, almost 27 million messages had been intercepted, delivered across 12,000 devices in 45 different languages.
On Tuesday, a sealed grand jury indictment in the southern district of California was opened, charging 17 foreign nationals with racketeering. Eight people have been detained. The others are on the run. It is alleged that they all assisted in the sale and distribution of encrypted An0m phones.
The bureau said nine law enforcement officers in contact with criminal gangs have been arrested around the world. Numerous drug shipments were confiscated as a result of "staggering intelligence" including a supply of cocaine from Ecuador to Spain packed inside containers of refrigerated tuna.
Australian PM Scott Morrison said the operation "struck a heavy blow against organized crime - not just in this country, but one that will echo... around the world." "This is a watershed moment in Australian law enforcement history," Morrison added.
The FBI said that they supplied more than 12,000 devices to more than 300 crime syndicates in over 100 different nations. According to the French news agency Agence France-Presse, FBI assistant director Calvin Shivers said that the cell phones running the AnOm app were disseminated over the course of nearly two years, allowing agents to "monitor their communications."