Cops take out encrypted comms to disrupt organised crime

The EncroChat encrypted communications platform has been infiltrated and taken out by the collaborative efforts of law enforcement agencies from across Europe, including the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA), resulting in massive disruption to organised criminal activity.

A major provider of encrypted communications and supplier of a secure mobile phone instant messaging service, EncroChat’s encryption was cracked by Dutch and French law enforcement agencies some time ago.

The bespoke platform was found to have 60,000 users worldwide and about 10,000 in the UK. The NCA said its sole use was for coordinating and planning the distribution of illicit commodities, money laundering, and even plotting to murder rivals.

The resulting effort in the UK, dubbed Operation Venetic, has so far resulted in 746 arrests and the seizure of £54m in cash, 77 illegal firearms including AK47 assault rifles, submachine guns and grenades, and two tonnes of class A and B drugs and illicit Valium, 55 luxury cars and 73 luxury watches.

NCA director of investigations Nikki Holland described Venetic as the broadest and deepest ever UK operation to disrupt serious and 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 organised crime group in the country. The NCA is proud to have led the UK part of this operation, working in partnership with policing and other agencies. The results have been outstanding, but this is just the start,” she said.

“A dedicated team of over 500 NCA officers has been working on Operation Venetic night and day, and thousands more across policing. And it’s all been made possible because of superb work with our international partners.

“Together we’ve protected the public by arresting middle-tier criminals and the kingpins, the so-called iconic untouchables who have evaded law enforcement for years, and now we have the evidence to prosecute them.

“The NCA plays a key role in international efforts to combat encrypted comms. I’d say to any criminal who uses an encrypted phone, you should be very, very worried.”

The operators of EncroChat, who charged up to £1,500 for a six-month contract on one of their £3,500 encrypted handsets – which came complete with pre-loaded instant messaging apps, encrypted VoIP and a remote kill code to wipe them – warned users of a data breach on 13 June 2020.

Home secretary Priti Patel said: “This operation demonstrates that criminals will not get away with using encrypted devices to plot vile crimes under the radar. The NCA’s relentless targeting of these gangs has helped to keep us all safe. I congratulate them and law enforcement partners on this significant achievement.

“I will continue working closely with the NCA and others to tackle the use of such devices – giving them the resources, powers and tools they need to keep our country safe.”

In London, the Metropolitan Police said Operation Venetic had delivered results in 34 ongoing investigations, and enabled 171 arrests in the city. So far, the Met has charged 99 people and seized £13.4m in cash, the largest single cash seizure in its history.

The force described one investigation into one of London’s most dangerous organised crime groups with long-standing links to violent crime, members of which lead lavish lifestyles and lived in multi-million pound properties.

“Organised crime groups have used encrypted communications to enable their offending. They have openly discussed plots to murder, launder money, deal drugs and sell firearms capable of causing atrocious scenes in our communities. They were brazen and thought they were beyond the reach of the law,” said Met commissioner Cressida Dick.

“This offending has a direct impact on our communities – those involved appear to have an air of respectability, but their actions leave a trail of misery and are inextricably linked to the violent scenes we see play out on our streets.”