Lawyers challenge encrypted messaging app used by AFP in global crime operation

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The legality of the encrypted app An0m, which the Australian Federal Police (AFP) used to run a global crime operation, is being challenged in the courts a year after its highly publicized disclosure.

In the 12 months since AFP and the FBI informed the world they were behind an encrypted phone known as An0m, 340 alleged offenders have been charged in Australia with 1,011 crimes. The number of arrests worldwide is over 1,000.

An An0m device wasn’t a phone you could walk into a store and buy. You had to know someone who would sell it to you, and the device was $1,700, with an annual subscription of $1,250. That money, unbeknownst to the buyers, has gone to law enforcement agencies that operate the app and capture all messages.

The phone could not make calls or browse the internet, but users could open the phone’s calculator and enter a specific amount to be posted to a secret messaging app.

It was on this app that law enforcement agencies were able to intercept 19.7 million messages between 2018 and 2021 that led to hundreds of arrests worldwide, as part of what AFP called Operation Ironside.

Since the initial fanfare from the AFP and the FBI, questions have been raised about the legal grounds on which the messages were intercepted and the warrants used.

This has led to legality being challenged directly in Australian courts as cases for prisoners as part of Operation Ironside begin to begin.

Related: Law giving AFP powers to monitor An0m devices did not become law until the FBI operation began

A lawyer representing one of the detainees told a court in Sydney in June that up to 30 people charged on the basis of messages in the app should question experts about how the messages were stored and then provided to AFP. These issues will be heard at a local Sydney court in September.

“There is a growing opinion among a number of high-ranking defense attorneys in this state and in other states that the authorization obtained was not sufficient and the evidence may not be obtained legally,” attorney Elie Rahme told the Supreme Court.

In South Australia, Michael Abbott QC, representing one of the two men before the SA Supreme Court, allegedly claimed that the operation was illegal.

“There is a serious illegality in what the AFP was doing on its own and with the help of the FBI,” he said.

“Under which Australian law is the AFP authorized to act?”

Judge Sandi McDonald said last week that experts working for three accused men as part of the operation will be able to access the app’s source code under “controlled and secure conditions”.

According to Vice, who allegedly obtained the app’s source code, the police were able to intercept all messages from the app via a blind copy function that transmitted all messages sent by the app to another account.

Guardian Australia understands that lawyers are expected to question whether the correct warrants were obtained for the operation. The warrants were obtained under the Surveillance Devices Act, but attorneys believe the warrants potentially should have been obtained under the Telecommunications (Intercept and Access) Act.

“This is something that was just never contemplated by law enforcement when they were putting this legislation in parliament, because it’s something other than tapping a phone,” said Rick Sarre, a professor of law and criminal justice at the University of South Australia. . “And it’s quite different from just looking at metadata.”

Australian Law Council Chair Tass Liveris said that while the council supports stopping organized crime and recognizes the need to modernize investigative functions, it is important that there are appropriate oversight mechanisms and legislative checks on how electronic surveillance works. is carried out by law enforcement.

“In our opinion, a fundamental redesign of electronic surveillance laws is needed, rather than incremental changes in the nature of correcting specific issues identified through operational activities,” he said.

An AFP spokesperson said it would not be appropriate to comment while the matter is in court.

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