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Infiltration of EncroChat behind Operation Venetic

Posted 7 July 2020 · Add Comment

A huge breakthrough in the fight against serious and organised crime was made after the takedown of EncroChat, a bespoke encrypted global communication service used exclusively by criminals, enabling the National Crime Agency (NCA) and the police to monitor criminal activity under Operation Venetic – the UK law enforcement response.

Image courtesy National Crime Agency (NCA)

EncroChat was one of the largest providers of encrypted communications and offered a secure mobile phone instant messaging service but an international law enforcement team cracked the company’s encryption.

There were 60,000 users worldwide and around 10,000 users in the UK – the sole use was for coordinating and planning the distribution of illicit commodities, money laundering and plotting to kill rival criminals.

Since 2016, the National Crime Agency (NCA) has been working with international law enforcement agencies to target EncroChat and other encrypted criminal communication platforms by sharing technical expertise and intelligence.

Two months ago this collaboration resulted in partners in France and the Netherlands infiltrating the platform. The EncroChat servers were based in France. The data harvested was shared via Europol.

The handsets could only be used to communicate with other EncroChat devices and had no other smartphone functionality other than one app – a currency converter to help calculate profit on deals.

Unbeknown to users the NCA and the police have been monitoring their every move since then under Operation Venetic – the UK law enforcement response.

Simultaneously, European law enforcement agencies have also been targeting organised crime groups.

The EncroChat servers have now been shut down.

Operation Venetic is the biggest and most significant operation of its kind in the UK. More than 746 arrests have been made because of the data with seizures of more than £54m in criminal cash, two tonnes of drugs, 77 firearms and 200 threats to life averted.

The NCA, Regional Organised Crime Units (ROCUs) and police forces have punched huge holes in the UK organised crime network so far by arresting 746 suspects and seizing:

  • 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

In addition, a specialist NCA team, working closely with policing partners, has prevented rival gangs carrying out kidnappings and executions on the UK’s streets by successfully mitigating over 200 threats to life.

Organised crime groups in the UK have been using EncroChat, communicating freely believing the technology made them secure. The criminal group behind EncroChat operated from outside the UK.

On 13th June EncroChat realised the platform had been penetrated and sent a message to its users urging them to throw away their handsets.

The phones – which have pre-loaded apps for instant messaging, the ability to make VOIP calls and a kill code which wipes them remotely – have no other conventional smart phone functionality and cost around £1,500 for a six-month contract.

Recent messages from some of the UK handsets included:

    “This year the police are winning.”
    “NCA as u know well are sophisticated and relentless.”
    “If NCA then we have a big problem.”
    “The police are having a field day.”

The NCA created the technology and specialist data exploitation capabilities required to process the EncroChat data and help identify and locate offenders by analysing millions of messages and hundreds of thousands of images.

Intelligence packages were disseminated to NCA operational teams, ROCUs, Police Service of Northern Ireland, Police Scotland, Metropolitan Police, Border Force, the Prison Service, and HMRC  to develop and launch investigations. The highest-harm organised crime groups were prioritised, with officers working tirelessly to attribute the handles to real world identities.

The Crown Prosecution Service is leading all the Operation Venetic prosecutions.

NCA Deputy Director Investigations Matt Horne, who was also Gold Commander for Operation Venetic, said: “Operation Venetic has targeted middle-ranking and top tier criminals, including offenders who’ve previously been untouchable.

“The messages are a reflection of UK law enforcement’s standing in their eyes – and they were before they realised their communication system had been infiltrated.

“Who knows what they think now?

“But they should know this is the just the start of Operation Venetic and the last thing we’ll be is complacent.

“We are not going to take our foot off the gas.

“NCA officers and our policing partners are fired up about this fight and about protecting the UK.

“Though the UK comments are rightly about the NCA’s and police’s tenacity, they’re also testament to how well international law enforcement works together and pulls in the same direction.”

NCA Director of Investigations Nikki Holland, said: “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.

“A dedicated team of over 500 NCA officers has been working on Operation Venetic night and day, and thousands more across policing. And it’s all been made possible because of superb work with our international partners.

“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.”

National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for serious organised crime, Chief Constable Steve Jupp, said: “This unique operation has specifically focussed on those thought to be involved in the highest levels of organised crime and drugs supply across the UK.

“I want to emphasise that this work is the culmination of meticulous planning to tackle the most serious and organised crimes groups that have been working in our communities.

“Serious organised crime is complex but working together with our Regional Organised Crimes Units and the National Crime Agency we have achieved an unparalleled victory against the kingpin criminals whose criminal activity and violence intimidates and exploits the most vulnerable.

“By dismantling these groups, we have saved countless lives and protected communities across the UK.

“Every UK police force has worked together to carry out these warrants, and I’m extremely proud of their hard work and determination which doesn’t stop here.

“This sort of activity is just one aspect of our continued fight to tackle serious and organised crime. I hope this sends a clear message to the public of our determination to rid communities of this sort of criminalisation.”

Home Secretary Priti Patel said: “This operation demonstrates that criminals will not get away with using encrypted devices to plot vile crimes under the radar.

“The NCA’s relentless targeting of these gangs has helped to keep us all safe. I congratulate them and law enforcement partners on this significant achievement.

“I will continue working closely with the NCA and others to tackle the use of such devices – giving them the resources, powers and tools they need to keep our country safe.”

 


 


 

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