Let’s talk about strong encryption. Again.

I hate to be unfair to Facebook (please don’t tell anyone I wrote that) but they are in the major line of fire in the encryption debate only because we know the scale of apparently criminal behaviour taking place on two of their major messaging platforms, namely Instagram Direct and Facebook Messenger. At least we know it in respect of offending against children because Facebook has for several years deployed tools to detect and report it. And the scale is huge. Which is why what Facebook does in this area is so important.

I make this point because when we finally reach an agreement it should be an agreement which embraces all messaging platforms, not just Facebook. Level playing fields matter. We must not build in commercial incentives to help crooks.

Is it likely Facebook is singularly afflicted? Er, no. Last week we got an insight into why I say that, thanks to the cops in Australia, the FBI and other national police services.

The police created a dummy messaging App and customised phones

Operation Greenlight/Trojan Shield involved creating an App called “ANOM” which was put on customised phones then marketed to criminal organizations and indidivuals by a major underworld figure who had been “persuaded” or paid to help law enforcement.

Planning for the operation began in 2017. Police closed down two messaging platforms that were known to be being used by large numbers of criminals. This created an opening in the market for ANOM and when the moment arrived it was ready.

The customised phones could not send or receive phone calls. They had no camera. The only usable App on it was ANOM and it could only message other ANOM users. As the Australian Federal Police put it “Criminals needed to know a criminal to get a device.” Eventually 11,800 of them were distributed.

Big scale police action

Reports of the results of the police action seem to vary slightly betweeen different media outlets but they are all roughly in the same ball park.

My numbers come mainly from the Washington Post. Police officers in 17 countries took part in the operation which stretched over eighteen months. During this period 27 million messages were exchanged via ANOM and the FBI saw every single one. They could see them in real time.

9,000 police officers were involved in sifting the messages which were exchanged in 45 different languages. The countries with the most users were Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Australia and Serbia although, in Europe, the largest number of arrests was made in Sweden (75). In total over 800 people were arrested in 17 different countries. The Australian police made 225 arrests. As one police officer put it, an important objective of the action was to undermine criminals’ confidence in messaging apps. I think they have achieved that in spades.

And what did the police see?

As a result of their access to the messages the senders and receivers thought were safely encrypted, law enforcement officers were able to seize eight tons of cocaine, twenty two tons of marijuana, two tons of methamphetamine and amphetamines, 250 firearms, 55 luxury vehicles and more than US$ 48 millions in cash and cryptocurrencies. Murders and kidnapings that were being planned never happened. Nine police officers were arrested because they were found to be in cahoots with the bad guys.

A telling touch

The creators of ANOM even came up with a marvellous marketing strap line to help move the product: “Enforce Your Right To Privacy”. Yes even the criminal underworld is suspectible to good messaging.

What more eloquent but depressing testimony could there be? How have we allowed an important human right, privacy, to become so grotesquely abused and used by some of the world’s worst purveyors of evil and death?

About John Carr

John Carr is one of the world's leading authorities on children's and young people's use of digital technologies. He is Senior Technical Adviser to Bangkok-based global NGO ECPAT International and is Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John is now or has formerly been an Adviser to the Council of Europe, the UN (ITU), the EU and UNICEF. John has advised many of the world's largest technology companies on online child safety. John's skill as a writer has also been widely recognised. http://johncarrcv.blogspot.com
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