At least 60 suspects were arrested and tonnes of illegal drugs seized after a joint operation by French and Dutch police that infiltrated an encrypted chatline used by criminal gangs, Europol announced.
The operation dates back to 2017, when French police discovered the existence of EncroChat, a fully encrypted communications app whose servers were located on French territory.
The app worked in conjunction with a specially adapted mobile phone, whose SIM card could not be linked to the user. The phone cost €1,000 to the user, which strongly suggests it was not intended for the man or woman in the street. A subscription to the service cost a further €1,500 for six months.
Further investigation revealed that the app, thanks to its protected messages, was popular with drugs gangs and money launderers – what has been described as WhatsApp for criminals.
The French then developed a tool to decrypt EncroChat messages, and proceeded to listen in on conversations which the gangs believed were impenetrable.
At the same time, Dutch police set up a similar operation, while the European police service Europol, based in The Hague, gave technical support, and managed to map networks across the continent.
Then in June this year, the operators of EncroChat discovered their security had been breached. They sent a message out to all subscribers informing them of the infiltration, and advising them to dispose of the phones.
Police, who were still listening in, took this as their moment to strike. The app is no longer available, 60 criminals are in jail and the gangs have lost a massive quantity of drugs and arms, drugs labs, cars, property and an estimated €20 million in cash.
“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,” Europol said in a press release.
Belgium was not involved in the eavesdropping operations, nor in the raids that took place as a result.
However the intelligence gathered by the infiltration of EncroChat will now be available to European police services to carry out operations on their own territory.
“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,” Europol said.