Hundreds arrested as crime chat network cracked

Crime lords arrested after European police crack secret chat service

European police shut criminal phone network used to plan murders

Nottinghamshire Police has supported the UK's most significant law enforcement operation in the fight against drugs. Authorities did not reveal the technical details of this maneuver.

French Gendarmerie and judicial authorities started investigating EncroChat in 2017 after finding that these devices - using French servers - were being regularly seized in operations targeting organized crime.

Two months ago, agencies in France and the Netherlands infiltrated the platform and shared the data via Europol, allowing police to monitor the private communications - including photos and millions of messages - of criminals. London's Met force has detained 132 people - including in the most serious organised crime network in the capital - and seized more than £13.3m in cash as well as machine guns and narcotics.

The NCA said it had made 746 arrests, and seized £54 million ($68 million) in cash, 77 firearms and more than two tons of drugs during the unprecedented Operation Venetic.

The crime agency said it had worked with police partners to prevent kidnappings and executions by "successfully mitigating over 200 threats to life".

OCCRP was unable to contact a representative of EncroChat for comment, as the company's website appears to have been taken down. Other sites on which EncroChat lists the security measures built into each of its smartphone devices are still operating.

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EncroChat sent a message to its estimated 60,000 users in June warning them to throw away their $1600 devices as its servers had been "seized illegally by government entities". "User hotspots were particularly present in source and destination countries for cocaine and cannabis trade, as well as in money laundering centers", Europol said.

Dame Cressida Dick, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, said that the criminal marketplace crackdown operation was a game-changer and said further that burst operations are going to continue for weeks, months, and years to come as a result of this.

"The operation also demonstrates the substantial benefits which we derive from worldwide co-operation between law enforcement agencies in Scotland and those of other countries - benefits which help to ensure the safety and security of people living in Scotland".

EncroChat is a step up in some ways from encrypted chat apps like Signal and WhatsApp.

In April, Eurojust helped combine the French, Dutch, U.K. and Europol operations into a single team that eventually led to the arrests.

These phones cost around £1,500 for a six-month contract.

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The phones and software were created to hide the owner's identity, location and any other details that could be useful for law enforcement investigations.

GPS, camera and microphone functions are permanently switched off to shut out snoopers.

"EncroChat phones were presented to customers as guaranteeing ideal anonymity", Europol says.

Andy Kraag, head of the Netherlands' National Criminal Investigation Service, said investigators exploited "state-of-the-art cyber technology" to break EncroChat's encryption, taking advantage of the alleged criminals' trust in the encrypted platform.

"For an important part, these messages were read by law enforcement in real time, over the shoulder of the unsuspecting senders".

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