Officers Seize £54 Million And Tonnes Of Drugs After Cracking Global Encrypted Network
UK law enforcement achieved its biggest-ever crime bust after successfully cracking a secret phone network used exclusively by criminals across the globe.
The operation saw entire organised crime groups dismantled as police made 746 arrests and seized £54m of criminal cash, 77 firearms and over two tonnes of Class A and B drugs.
The phone network is called EncroChat and works as a messaging system, similar to WhatsApp, however it is only available pre-loaded on to special phones, which cost about £1,500 for a six-month contract.
EncroChat offered a secure mobile phone instant messaging service, and the National Crime Agency (NCA) has been working with international law enforcement agencies to target EncroChat and other encrypted criminal communication platforms since 2016.
Things came to a head two months ago, when partners in France and the Netherlands infiltrated the platform and were able to harvest data from the network.
Police could then build a case against criminals identified in the chats by analysing hundreds of handsets and thousands of messages, with EncroChat users oblivious to the fact they were being monitored.
The criminal group behind EncroChat operated from outside the UK, but their platform had 60,000 users worldwide, around 10,000 of which were in the UK. Its sole use was for coordinating and planning the distribution of illicit commodities, money laundering and plotting to kill rival criminals.
EncroChat users had access to features such as self-destructing messages that deleted from the recipient’s device after a certain length of time, and a ‘kill code’ with which all data on the device could be deleted.
On June 13, EncroChat realised the platform had been penetrated and sent a message to users urging them to throw away their handsets.
The message system’s servers have now been shut down, and the NCA, Regional Organised Crime Units (ROCUs) and police forces across the UK set out to target the organised crime network.
Among the items seized were an AK-47 assault rifle, sub machine guns, four grenades, over 1,800 rounds of ammunition, more than 28 million Etizolam pills (street Valium), 55 high value cars and 73 luxury watches.
The Metropolitan Police Service recovered guns, class A drugs and more than £13m as part of the operation, which is the ‘most significant’ the organisation has ever launched, BBC News reports.
Met Police Commissioner Cressida Dick said:
This operation is the most significant activity, certainly in my career, we have ever carried out against serious and organised criminality across London.
This is just the beginning, there are many more people we are investigating. We know who they are and we have seen what they are doing and who they are doing it with.
A specialist NCA team also worked closely with policing partners to prevent rival gangs carrying out kidnappings and executions on the UK’s streets by successfully mitigating over 200 threats to life.
Nikki Holland, NCA Director of Investigations, commented on the impressive bust, saying:
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. This is the broadest and deepest ever UK operation into serious organised crime.
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.
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.
Home Secretary Priti Patel commended those involved in the bust for the ‘significant achievement’, adding she will continue working closely with the NCA and others to tackle the use of such devices.
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