Cracking of encrypted messaging service dealt major blow to organised crime

Cracking of encrypted messaging service dealt major blow to organised crime
Credit: Belga

The cracking of a previously-unbreakable encrypted messaging service popular with criminals involved in drug trafficking and organised crime delivered a major victory for the justice system on Tuesday.

The cracking of the expensive messaging app, called “Sky ECC,” was what allowed over 1,500 police officers across Belgium to be simultaneously deployed in at least 200 raids, many of which were centred around Antwerp and involved special forces.

Investigators succeeded in cracking Sky ECC at the end of last year, according to reporting by De Standaard, and as a result were able to sort through thousands of messages major criminals were sending each other over the course of a month.

Information gained from those conversations is what led to Tuesday's historic operation, two years in the making.

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Sky ECC became popular with drug criminals after its successor Encrochat was cracked in 2020 by French and Dutch investigators, who were able to intercept over 100 million messages sent via the app.

That led to over a hundred suspects being arrested in the Netherlands, uncovering a network of laboratories where crystal meth and other drugs were being produced and allowing police to seize 8,000 kilos of cocaine and almost €20 million.

A number of investigations are also still currently underway in Belgium based on the information from that cracking. While it led to panic among major criminal operations in the Netherlands, there wasn’t much of a reaction at the time in the Belgian underworld.

“Almost everyone in Antwerp switched from Encrochat to Sky two years ago,” a source told the Gazet van Antwerpen in July last year, adding that major Antwerp criminals in Dubai also used Sky ECC.

The company, which calls itself “the world's most secure messaging app,” had previously said “hacking is impossible.” It defended its services, stating they “strongly believe that privacy is a fundamental human right.”

But critics say more than 90% of its customers are criminals.

The app is installed on phones and disables the camera, GPS, and microphone to prevent eavesdropping. Messages are automatically deleted after thirty seconds. If a user enters a “panic” password, the contents of the device will be immediately deleted. The app itself is also hidden on the screen of the device, so it isn't immediately visible to others.

Sky ECC promised a 5 million USD (€4.2 million) prize on its website, which is currently down, to anyone who could crack its encryption.

It is not yet clear if Belgian authorities plan to claim the reward.

Update: In a press conference by Belgium's federal public prosector's office on Tuesday afternoon, authorities stated that 17 tonnes of cocaine and €1.2 million were seized, and that 48 suspects were arrested. Click here for the latest info.

Helen Lyons

The Brussels Times

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