The recent takedown of EncroChat, an encrypted communications service used by criminal gangs, has resulted in unprecedented success for the National Crime Agency in terms of criminals caught, as well as seized drugs, firearms, and cash.
The success of Operation Venetic has shown that the convenience of encrypted communications is not only enjoyed by cyber criminals, but also criminals of every kind who thrive on anonymity and deception. So widespread was the use of EncroChat by criminal networks that its takedown resulted in 746 arrests in the UK alone.
EncroChat is a popular encrypted global communication service used exclusively by criminals in multiple countries. According to NCA estimates, around 10,000 out of 60,000 EncroChat users are based in the UK and they used the service for coordinating and planning the distribution of illicit commodities, money laundering, and plotting to kill rival criminals.
Criminals paid around £1,500 for a six-month contract with EncroChat, in exchange for which they received custom phones which had pre-loaded apps for instant messaging, the ability to make VOIP calls, and a kill code which wiped them remotely. EncroChat remained active till 13th June when its authors realised that the platform had been penetrated and asked users to throw away their handsets.
EncroChat was first infiltrated in April this year by law enforcement agencies in France and the Netherlands who proceeded to share the data with other European agencies via Europol. Using the wealth of information obtained from EncroChat, NCA launched its own operation dubbed Operation Venetic to nab criminals who operated in the UK.
Aside from arresting 746 suspects, NCA also seized over £54 million in criminal cash, 77 firearms, including an AK47 assault rifle, sub machine guns, handguns, four grenades, and over 1,800 rounds of ammunition, more than two tonnes of Class A and B drugs, over 28 million Etizolam pills (street Valium) from an illicit laboratory, 55 high value cars, and 73 luxury watches.
Information obtained via EncroChat also helped NCA successfully mitigating over 200 criminal activities such as planned kidnappings and executions between rival gangs.
“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,” said Nikki Holland, NCA Director of Investigations.
“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.”
"While the activities on EncroChat have been stopped, this complex operation shows the global scope of serious and organised crime and the connectivity of criminal networks who use advanced technologies to cooperate on a national and international level," said Europol.
"The effects of the operation will continue to echo in criminal circles for many years to come, as the information has been provided to hundreds of ongoing investigations and, at the same time, is triggering a very large number of new criminal investigations of organised crime across the European continent and beyond," it added.