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How Police Secretly Took Over a Global Phone Network for Organized Crime

Police monitored a hundred million encrypted messages sent through Encrochat, a network used by career criminals to discuss drug deals, murders, and extortion plots.

Something wasn’t right. Starting earlier this year, police kept arresting associates of Mark, a UK-based alleged drug dealer. Mark took the security of his operation seriously, with the gang using code names to discuss business on custom, encrypted phones made by a company called Encrochat. For legal reasons, Motherboard is referring to Mark using a pseudonym.

Because the messages were encrypted on the devices themselves, police couldn’t tap the group’s phones or intercept messages as authorities normally would. On Encrochat, criminals spoke openly and negotiated their deals in granular detail, with price lists, names of customers, and explicit references to the large quantities of drugs they sold, according to documents obtained by Motherboard from sources in and around the criminal world.

Maybe it was a coincidence, but in the same time frame, police across the UK and Europe busted a wide range of criminals. In mid-June, authorities picked up an alleged member of another drug gang. A few days later, law enforcement seized millions of dollars worth of illegal drugs in Amsterdam. It was as if the police were detaining people from completely unrelated gangs simultaneously.

“[The police] all over it aren’t they,” the dealer wrote in one of the messages obtained by Motherboard. “My heads still baffled how they got on all my guys.”

Unbeknownst to Mark, or the tens of thousands of other alleged Encrochat users, their messages weren’t really secure. French authorities had penetrated the Encrochat network, leveraged that access to install a technical tool in what appears to be a mass hacking operation, and had been quietly reading the users’ communications for months. Investigators then shared those messages with agencies around Europe.

“I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Only now is the astonishing scale of the operation coming into focus: It represents one of the largest law enforcement infiltrations of a communications network predominantly used by criminals ever, with Encrochat users spreading beyond Europe to the Middle East and elsewhere. French, Dutch, and other European agencies monitored and investigated “more than a hundred million encrypted messages” sent between Encrochat users in real time, leading to arrests in the UK, Norway, Sweden, France, and the Netherlands, a team of international law enforcement agencies announced Thursday.

As dealers planned trades, money launderers washed their proceeds, and even criminals discussed their next murder, officers read their messages and started taking suspects off the street.

The messages “have given insight in an unprecedented large number of serious crimes, including large, international drug shipments and drug labs, murders, thrashing robberies, extortions, robberies, grave assaults and hostage takings. International drug and money laundering corridors have become crystal clear,” Dutch law enforcement said.

Read more at – Vice.com

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