UK law enforcement, the UK National Crime Agency and other European forces have made “a massive breakthrough” in the battle against organised crime after infiltrating encrypted communication system Encrochat.

Known as Operation Venetic in the UK, the investigation has led to the dismantling of many organised crime groups through the arrest of 746 “middle-tier criminals and the kingpins” across Europe, as well as the siezure of over two tonnes of drugs, weapons and £54m in cash.

What is Encrochat?

Hosted in France, Encrochat, which has now been shut down, was one of the largest encrypted communication platforms. The organisation provided modified secure Android phones to users, with features such as encrypted messaging, a feature that means messages are erased shortly after they have been sent, and the option to erase all data from the device. Features such as cameras, microphone and GPS are usually permanently disabled in order to avoid hacking. Devices cost £1,500 for a six-month contract.

According to the BBC, Encrochat devices appear to be normal smartphones, but when certain buttons are pressed, a hidden secure operating system is activated, which enables the user to access the encrypted applications.

Although encrypted phones are legal, the promise of the “world’s most secure handset” and “worry-free secure communications” offered by Encrochat attracted those looking to carry out criminal activities. Encrochat, which has 60,000 users worldwide and around 10,000 users in the UK, was used in the “distribution of illicit commodities, money laundering and plotting to kill rival criminals” according to the National Crime Agency.

The agency, along with other international agencies, has been working since 2016 to intercept Encrochat and other platforms and successfully cracked the encryption used by Encrochat in March.

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According to the National Crime Agency, using “specialist data exploitation capabilities”, it was able to “identify and locate offenders by analysing millions of messages and hundreds of thousands of images”. The agency predicts that the operation has prevented over 200 threats to life.

NCA Director of Investigations Nikki Holland, said:

“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.”

Last month Vice reported that Encrochat sent a message to users warning them that law enforcement officials had hacked some Encrochat phones, advising them to dispose of their devices.

Jake Moore, Cybersecurity Specialist at ESET believes that the disruption of online crime could become more common in the future:

“It is quite rare to achieve such a significant win against cyber criminals. Law enforcement have been left behind in the cyber arms race over the last few years so a result like this will hopefully act as a blow to criminal groups around the world.

“Once a criminal service such as Encrochat is shut down, it is quite normal to see another similar service crop up. This can be with the added dangers of an even more underground service that has learnt from its predecessor’s mistakes.

“However, UK cyber intelligence in the likes of GCHQ are closing the gap on criminals gangs which have had a head start, and it is likely we will start to see more good news stories on the disruption of more online crime.”

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