French lead European-wide bust after decrypting criminal network

Clay Curtis
July 4, 2020

"Op Venetic" targeted organised crime groups operating using encrypted technology in a bid to evade law enforcement.

And it's been made possible by infiltrating an encrypted messaging system used exclusively by criminals.

The Europe-wide operation also involved Europol - the agency responsible for law enforcement cooperation in the EU.

The Serious Organised Crime Taskforce has carried out a cross border operation which saw Police Scotland arrest 59 suspects and seize more than £25 million in illegal drugs in recent weeks.

"In early 2020, EncroChat was one of the largest providers of encrypted digital communication with a very high share of users presumably engaged in criminal activity", Europol says.

Two months ago, French and Dutch investigators infiltrated the platform - which had 60,000 users worldwide and around 10,000 in the United Kingdom - and shared the data via Europol, allowing the authorities to monitor criminals' messages and movements.

Along with the 734 suspects arrested and £54 million ($97 million) seized, the NCA announced it had also captured firearms, drugs and luxury cars and watches.

The agency said it had disbanded "entire organised crime groups".

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It was not until the middle of June that EncroChat operators, who are based in France, became aware of the fact they had been compromised and sent a warning message out to users to destroy their devices. Because of the trusted nature of the app, people would openly discuss drug deals, murders, and other crimes, making them sitting ducks for law enforcement.

Simon Parkes, detective chief superintendent from ERSOU, said: "This is perhaps the most important law enforcement operation to take place in the Eastern region".

"Our ongoing commitment through our Stronghold campaign means that we will work in partnership with the NCA and the South East Regional Organised Crime Unit as well as other police forces and partner agencies to target this type of criminality and also safeguard anyone we find who has been exploited".

French police first tied EncroChat to alleged criminal operations in 2017 when they discovered that numerous phones found during criminal investigations used the telecom service.

"They range from the removal of limbs through to acid attacks and shootings", she explained.

Encryption jumbles messages in transit, and is widely accepted to be one of the best ways of hiding from online snoopers.

"By working together we have penetrated organised criminal networks who thought they were untouchable by seizing significant amounts of criminal cash, stopping firearms and drugs reaching our streets to protect the people of Northern Ireland".

"They see this as that significant in terms of getting that inside information, effectively having a person inside an organized crime group telling us what they're up to", she said. Holland said criminals with encrypted devices "should be very, very anxious".

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