Authorities in Australia and New Zealand said they have dealt a huge blow to organised crime after hundreds of criminals were tricked into using a messaging app that was being secretly run by the FBI.
Police said criminal gangs thought the encrypted app called ANOM was safe from snooping when, in fact, authorities for months had been monitoring millions of messages about drug smuggling, money laundering and even planned killings.
Drug dealers in the UK are among criminals duped into using the encrypted messaging service.
How was the app used?
The app was part of a worldwide sting called Operation Trojan Shield, which was led by the FBI and involved the US Drug Enforcement Administration, the European Union police agency Europol and law enforcement agencies in more than a dozen countries.
Authorities in Australia said the app was installed on stripped-back mobile phones and its popularity grew organically in criminal circles after it was vouched for by some high-profile underworld figures, described as "criminal influencers".
Millions of messages about drug dealing, money laundering and planned murders were accessed by authorities in the UK, US, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.
The app was set up in 2019, and grew to service 12,000 encrypted devices linked to more than 300 criminal gangs operating in more than 100 countries.
Who has been arrested?
Around 800 suspects have been arrested in 16 countries, law enforcement agency Europol said.
Among them are drug dealers in the UK.
Australian police have alleged that fugitive Hakan Ayik inadvertently helped to expose the criminal network by proliferating the use of the phones.
The Australian is said to be the head of an international drug cartel and has been on the run from authorities for the past decade.
Reality stars Sopiea Kong and Samuel Minkin have also been caught up in the global sting.
Kong was a contestant on the 2017 edition of Ninja Warrior. The 33-year-old was arrested last week with police seizing 154g of meth.
Minkin starred on The Bachelorette and was found to be in possession of commercial quality cannabis.
What have UK authorities said?
The UK National Crime Agency said it had carried out “multiple operations” as a result of the sting, codenamed Operation Trojan Shield.
A spokeswoman said: “The National Crime Agency is proud to have been a partner in what has been an innovative and complex operation to target criminals operating globally and using encrypted communications platforms.
“As part of this, the NCA has conducted multiple operations targeting organised crime groups involved in drug trafficking and money laundering.
“This operation has demonstrated that, in the face of the rapidly evolving threat from criminals exploiting the fast expansion of technology, the NCA is committed to working across international borders to target organised criminals, wherever they are and however they communicate.”
The NCA would not reveal further details of the operations carried out or the estimated number of Anom users in the UK.