A 4-year investigation shuts down EncroChat & arrests 746 alleged criminals for planning murders, selling drugs & laundering money.
European law-enforcement officials have shut down an encrypted Android-based communications platform used exclusively by criminals to plot murders, traffic illegal drugs, commit money laundering & plan other organized crimes.
An international law-enforcement team from France & the Netherlands cracked the encryption of EncroChat, a secure mobile messaging service that was “one of the largest providers of encrypted communications,” according to the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA).
British officials had been investigating the platform & activities of the criminals using it since 2016 through Operation Venetic, working alongside international law-enforcement agencies to share technical expertise & intelligence.
2 months ago, investigators in France & the Netherlands cracked the network’s encryption, allowing law enforcement to listen in to criminal communications about selling & trafficking drugs, laundering money & murdering rivals.
Serious Organised Crime
“The infiltration of this command-and-control communication platform for the UK’s criminal marketplace is like having an inside person in every top organized crime group in the country,” NCA director of investigations Nikki Holland said in a statement. “This is the broadest & deepest-ever UK operation into serious organised crime.
More than one murder was disrupted as a result, police observed.
“A specialist NCA team, working closely with policing partners, has prevented rival gangs carrying out kidnappings & executions on the UK’s streets by successfully mitigating over 200 threats to life,” commented the NCA.
The resulting EU operation ended last week with 746 arrests, & the seizure of £54 million (US$67 million) in cash, 77 firearms & more than 2 tons of illegal drugs, says the NCA. Police also seized more than 1,800 rounds of ammunition, over 28 million Etizolam pills (street Valium) from an illicit laboratory, 55 “high-value cars” & 73 luxury watches, officials commented.
Not much is known about who is behind EncroChat, but officials said it was only used by criminals to plan illegal activity.
The service’s owners became aware of the criminal investigation last month, informing an estimated 60,000 users with a message warning them to get rid of their EncroChat devices because their servers, operating out of France, had been “seized illegally by government entities,” says the NCA.
The service relied on EncroChat devices, which came with pre-loaded apps for instant messaging as well as the ability to make secure internet calls, with no other “conventional smartphone” functionality, UK sources said.
The devices cost about around £1,500 (US$1,872) for a 6-month contract, which included a ‘kill code’ that could wipe them remotely.
A published report in Vice Motherboard extensively details how authorities cracked EncroChat’s encryption & intercepted criminal communications to take down a major communications pipeline for criminal activity.
Criminals describe EncroChat phones as modified Android devices, including some models that use “BQ Aquaris X2,” an Android handset released in 2018 by a Spanish electronics company, according to leaked documents cited in the report.
To turn the phones into secure messaging devices, Encrochat installed its own encrypted messaging programs onto the basic device. The service would remove the GPS, camera & microphone functionality from the device & route messages through Encrochat’s own servers to ensure secure communications.
Wipe the Device
Unique to EncroChat device was a service that a user could execute using a PIN to wipe the device if it were compromised. Devices also could run 2 operating systems side by side to hide activities, said the report.
If a user wanted the device to appear like a typical smartphone, they could boot it into a regular Android OS. To use the encrypted service, they would switch the device over to the EncroChat system.
Purchasing an EncroChat phone also was not easy, with criminals describing back-alley deals with otherwise legitimate vendors to procure devices, according to the report.
Once law enforcement cracked EncroChat’s encryption, investigators had an unobstructed view into the activities of organised criminals, who believed they were communicating securely only with their collaborators.
Messages intercepted by authorities outlined how criminal gangs allegedly directed members to obtain money from customers, how to launder it safely, where to hide drugs, & when & how murders against rivals would be committed, according to the report.
The resulting arrests spanned a number of EU countries & the UK, with authorities currently detaining alleged criminals in the UK, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain & Sweden.