Police recruit criminal "influencers" to beat the bad guys at their own game

Imagine knowing every move your enemies were about to make. Picture: Shutterstock

Imagine knowing every move your enemies were about to make. Picture: Shutterstock

Alan Turing and the codebreakers at Bletchley Park are credited with saving up to 21 million lives by ending World War II early. The German military communicated coded messages using "Enigma" machines to perform the coding and decoding.

These messages contained top-secret information about strategy and position. The Germans sent these messages with total confidence after encrypting the information with Enigma knowing that the number of combinations was approximately 1.59 by 10 to the power of 20.

What they didn't count on was the brilliance of Turing who managed to decrypt these messages and, usually within the hour, delivered the deciphered messages to the allied commanders.

Just imagine the advantage of knowing every move your enemies were about to make. It was enough to end a war! In a case of history almost repeating itself, police across the globe have pounced on hundreds of alleged criminals who have been communicating using a secure messaging app.

In the same way that the Germans discussed information thinking that only they could read it, underworld figures used a secure messaging app assuming that only they could read the information that was being transmitted. In this modern-day version of covert surveillance, they went one better than Turing.

The police did not break the code of a secure messaging app. They created the app! All messages sent via the app could be read real-time by law enforcement agencies.

And what put a smile on my face was the fact that there was a subscription model to use this app. The criminals using this app were actually paying law enforcement for the privilege of using an app that told the authorities everything they were doing!

This may have been designed to give the app more legitimacy or it may have just been an ironic joke the authorities were playing.

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So how did it all work? It followed some simple business principles.

For a start, authorities around the world managed to shut down some other secure messaging apps that were known to be used by crims. So there was a vacuum in the underworld messaging space.

Step one in business. Find a hole in the market. They then needed to create a product to fill that hole. Authorities employed a known hacker to create an app that would be exactly what underworld figures wanted. Military grade encryption.

A kill switch to delete all information on the phone. A phone that had all other apps removed from it including normal text, phone and GPS services. A mobile phone that had the normal operating system removed and a different version of the operating system installed - often referred to as a jailbroken phone.

They now had a product to fill the market. Step two completed.

Step three is marketing. They came up with the name AN0M. A play on the word anonymous with a zero for the letter O to make it seem groovy.

Then criminal "influencers" were recruited to push the product along with agents who had already infiltrated underworld operations to plant the product.

The criminals using this app were actually paying law enforcement for the privilege.

The hacker may not be able to lay claim to saving as many lives as Turing, but authorities were able to access more than 20 million messages from 11,800 devices in 90 countries and over 800 people were arrested worldwide.

Tens of millions in cash, hundreds of weapons and tonnes of drugs were also seized. Chalk up a victory to the good guys!

  • Mathew Dickerson is a technologist, futurist and host of the Tech Talk podcast.
This story Fighting fire with fire to beat bad guys at their own game first appeared on The Canberra Times.