Most daring surveillance sting in history


Commander Richard Chin

An0m, as it was called, looked like any off-the-shelf smartphone, a polished pebble of black glass and aluminium. The device had been modified to remove many of its core functions. An0m could not be bought in a shop or on a website. You had to first know a guy. Then you had to be prepared to pay the astronomical cost: $1,700 for the handset, with a $1,250 annual subscription, an astonishing price for a phone that was unable to make phone calls or browse the internet.

Almost 10,000 users around the world had agreed to pay, not for the phone so much as for a specific application installed on it. Opening the phone’s calculator allowed users to enter a sum that functioned as a kind of numeric open sesame to launch a secret messaging application. The people selling the phone claimed that An0m was the most secure messaging service in the world. Not only was every message encrypted so that it could not be read by a digital eavesdropper, it could be received only by another An0m phone user, forming a closed loop system entirely separate from the information speedways along which most text messages travel. Moreover, An0m could not be downloaded from any of the usual app stores. The only way to access it was to buy a phone with the software preinstalled…

An0m was marketed and sold not so much to the security conscious as the security paranoid; its embedded suite of anonymising digital tools went far beyond the requirements of the average user. According to Australian police, it was the ideal telecommunications channel to arrange the safe passage of A$64m of cocaine across the world. An0m was not, however, a secure phone app at all. Every single message sent on the app since its launch in 2018 – 19.37m of them – had been collected, and many of them read by the Australian federal police (AFP) who, together with the FBI, had conceived, built, marketed and sold the devices.

So, coppers in Oz can be just as creepy [and well-funded] as the FBI. I have to wonder if they are as willing as the FBI is…to snoop on citizens for political reasons as well as chasing actual criminals.

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