lawyers challenge encrypted messaging app used by AFP in global crime spree

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

In the 12 months since the AFP and FBI told the world they were behind an encrypted phone known as An0m, it has led to 340 alleged offenders being charged in Australia with 1011 offences. The number of arrests globally is over 1,000.

An An0m device was not a phone you could walk into a store and buy. You had to know someone who would sell it to you, and it cost $1,700 for the handset, with a $1,250 annual subscription. That money, unbeknownst to the buyers, went to law enforcement agencies that operated the app and intercepted every message.

The phone couldn’t make calls or surf the internet, but users could open the phone’s calculator and enter a specific sum to be launched into a secret messaging app.

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

Since the initial fanfare from the AFP and FBI, questions have been raised about the legal basis for the interception of the messages and the use of the warrant.

This has led to the legality being directly challenged in Australian courts, as the cases of those arrested as part of Operation Ironside begin to get underway.

Related: Legislation authorizing the AFP to monitor An0m devices did not become law until after the FBI operation began

A lawyer acting for one of those arrested told a Sydney court in June that up to 30 people charged based on messages on the app were being questioned by experts about how the messages were stored and then given to AFP. These cases will be heard in a local court in Sydney in September.

“There is a growing perception among a number of very senior defense attorneys in this state, and in other states, that the authorization obtained was not sufficient and the evidence may not have been lawfully obtained,” attorney Elie Rahme reportedly told the Supreme Court.

In South Australia, Michael Abbott QC, acting for one of two men before the SA Supreme Court, alleged the operation was illegal.

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

“Under what law in Australia was the AFP allowed to act?”

Judge Sandi McDonald said last week that specialists working for three men charged as part of the sting would be able to access the source code of the app under “controlled and secure conditions”.

According to Vice, which has reportedly obtained the source code for the app, law enforcement officials were able to intercept every single message sent over the app via a blind carbon copy feature that relayed each message sent over the app to another account.

Guardian Australia understands it is expected lawyers will question whether the correct warrants were obtained for the operation. The warrants were obtained under the Surveillance Equipment Act, but lawyers believe that the warrants should potentially have been obtained under the Telecommunications (Wiretapping and Access) Act.

“These are things that were simply never considered by law enforcement when they put this legislation through 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 that’s something completely different than just looking at metadata.”

Law Council of Australia president Tass Liveris said that while the council supports disrupting organized crime and recognizes the need to modernize investigative functions, it is important that there are appropriate oversight mechanisms and legislative controls on how electronic surveillance is carried out by law enforcement.

“In our view, a fundamental redesign of electronic surveillance laws is needed, rather than incremental changes in the form of patching specific problems identified through operational activities,” he said.

An AFP spokesperson said it would not be appropriate to comment while the case is before the courts.

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