Crack of crime phones nets police 2,000 suspects

Crack of crime phones nets police 2,000 suspects
Credit: Jasper Jacobs/Belga

A police operation that allowed police to break into a secure messaging app commonly used by criminals has so far given police the names of more than 2,000 crime suspects, De Tijd reports.

The breakthrough came just over six months ago, when law enforcement was able to tap into the encryption of the Sky ECC network, which users had been assured was uncrackable.

When the app was installed on phones it disabled the camera, GPS, and microphone to prevent eavesdropping. Messages were automatically deleted after thirty seconds. If a user entered a “panic” password, the contents of the device were immediately deleted. The app itself was also hidden on the screen of the device, so it wasn’t immediately visible to others.

The company had such confidence in its product it offered a prize of €4.2 million ($5 million) to anyone who could crack the encryption.

Police forces across Europe managed to do so made an even more important return.

The immediate result was an operation on 9 March this year, involving 1,600 law enforcement officers at 200 locations in Belgium.

The federal prosecutor Frédéric Van Leeuw, who is responsible for cases involving terrorism and organised crime, reported that the operation had netted police at least one billion messages sent from criminal to criminal. It was concluded that the criminals had been so confident in the company’s assurances they had not even bothered using the panic button.

Six months on, and the true results of the operation have become clear.

“We have already identified 2,000 suspects across Belgium, 360 of whom have been arrested,” said Eric Van Duyse, spokesperson for the federal prosecutor’s office.

There are a lot of individuals among them who were not at all on the radar of the judiciary and the police until this operation. They were also found to be using South American ‘plata o plomo’ (silver or lead, the bribe or the bullet) practices, which we must avoid becoming established as they are difficult to eradicate.”

There are currently 268 criminal cases now underway involving the people caught in the net, 192 of them started after the crack. The others are existing cases to which the Sky ECC information has provided crucial intelligence.

“Thanks to the Sky ECC information, we have already seized €32.5 million, and that amount could increase considerably,” said Van Duyse.

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