Enchrochat: The Ultimate Pandora’s Box
Peter Donnelly, Editor
In this special Autumn feature, Peter Donnelly, Editor recounts how one of the largest European encrypted communications networks, ‘Encrochat‘ was dismantled by Europe-wide law enforcement agencies. With a recovery of £54 million criminal cash and 750 arrests being made, by the National Crime Agency in the UK, the lid of the ultimate Pandora’s box, for the criminal fraternity, has been well and truly lifted.
The Covid-19 crisis has not spared much of normality in its deadly wake. By now, after seven months of living under the burden of Coronavirus restrictions most of us are truly well-aware of its stranglehold effect on lives, health, the economy and society as a whole.
Despite the lockdown and much of society under one form of lockdown or another, an equally deadly and vicious pandemic continues, unabated, to plague society – Crime. The fight against it and its practitioners has not waned as a result of Covid. In fact, the strenuous efforts by police and law enforcement to combat it have only accelerated, particularly over our rather subdued Summer.
Europe-wide law enforcement agencies had been collating and processing intelligence in their efforts to penetrate the ‘Encrochat’ phone and encrypted communications network, once used anonymously by those nestled within the confines of the criminal underworld, to source such illicit materials including drugs and high-velocity firearms.
The inherent attraction of Enchrochat for the criminal fraternity, lay in its almost surreal anonymity
Summer 2020, for all its downs, proved to sound the rather ominous death-knell for Enchrochat and its 60,000 worldwide users.
Encrochat itself claims to be a legitimate, secure phone communications company with reputable directors. This is despite the stark reality that their platform became one of the primary, go-to safe havens for criminals.
The server’s administrators, believed to be from The Netherlands, exhibited highly advanced skill when creating Encrochat, investing in state-of-the-art, anti-tracking software.
Enchrochat’s inherent attraction, for the criminal fraternity, lay in its almost surreal anonymity, which utilised a military grade PGP encryption. The phone devices from which Encrochat could be accessed were said to be devoid of SIM card or similar association. The camera, microphone and GPS modules were disabled.
Also inbuilt, within the software were, specific emergency functions. One such function, prosecutors describe as an ‘autodestruct’ feature which allowed a sender to ‘force wipe’ their messages from a recipient’s device by employing a timer-countdown technique; leaving little in the way of tangible evidence for law enforcement or their digital forensic experts to pursue.
At least that was the shared logic of Enchrochat’s nexus of users.
Unravelling & Undoing
Following what was considered a rotuine raid against organised criminals in France, in 2017, police there uncovered a unique Android-style device containing unusual applications which required a series of passwords to access.
Upon investigation this would prove to be the beginning of the end for Encrochat. For all their concerted efforts Encrochat handlers proved to be no match for the unparalleled and combined capabilities of European law enforcement.
Over an 18-month period police agencies in in both France and the Netherlands designed a highly specialised malware to penetrate the system which was once to believed to have been the impenetrible. The malware decoded Encrochat’s internal security ‘firewall’ allowing investigators to record tens of millions of private messages in which criminals brazenly discussed their dispicable exploits.
Document extracts obtained by Vice News give readers an illustrative flavour of the archetypal topics of conversation; drug deal transactions worth millions of Euros, kidnappings, contract killings and extortion plots dominated the network.
The data gathered by French and Dutch authorities, from the latter part of 2018, was shared with Europol – the EU’s law enforcement arm – and subsequently with Europe-wide policing agencies.
The Summer period would see over 800 criminal players arrested right across the Continent.
UK Operation Venetic
Elite NCA teams, in co-operation with nationwide police forces, led the teams tasked with tracking down UK Encrochat users in an operation code named ‘Operation Venetic.’
The far-ranging effects of the operation have proven to be catastrophic to those UK criminals for whom Encrochat was a second home. Around 750 UK and Irish-based criminals have thus far been arrested following co-ordinated police raids, with seizures of more than £54m in criminal cash, an astounding recovery of two tonnes worth of drugs, 77 firearms and 200 threats to life averted.
NCA and Metropolitan Police raids, in July alone netted around 200 London criminals, considered ‘the untouchables;’ content to leave their henchmen to do the dirty work. The Metropolitan Police, described the raids as their “most significant” for a considerable period, with murder plots disrupted, top-brass cars and commodities seized and a staggering £13.4 million worth of cash intercepted.
Last month, in September, ten individuals were arrested in the South East of England, encompassing the South-East London, Sussex and Kent areas, in a targeted swoop directly resulting from the intelligence obtained from Encrochat.
In one raid, at the home of 32-year-old Dartford man, Karl Lockey, a cash sum of £363,000 was discovered hoarded in shopping bags. Evidence of his lavish criminal lifestyle was further in evidence, when officers seized motorbikes, designer clothes and high-tech fishing equipment. Lockey pleased guilty to charges of money laundering and was sentenced to two years in prison.
A Metropolitan Police spokesperson said that the individuals in question were charged with “a number of different offences including conspiracy to supply Class ‘A’ drugs (namely cocaine) and being concerned in the acquisition, retention, conceleament and disposal of criminal property under The Proceeds of Crime Act. “(23rd September)
It is further estimated that approximately £3.6 million worth of cash, 79kg of drugs and 220 rounds of ammunition were recovered by the NCA’s Regional Organised Crime Units in the North West of England.
Sources within An Garda Siochana and the NCA have intimated that, although the Encrochat sting will set back criminal groups, alternative forums of criminal networking remain. Gardaí have said that Dublin’s notorious Kinahan cartel are known to use encrypted Blackberry devices in pursuit of their activities.
The Essence of Partnership
A crucial factor in the operation’s success was the paramountcy of co-operation and partnership across Europe. Such a joined-up approach will be necessary if future operations on this scale are to attain similar binding results.
Wil van Gemert, deputy executive director of Europol, speaking in the Hague press conference, in the wake of the bust, emphasised how pivitol Europe-wide and international partnership was to the operation which he said resulted in large-scale “criminal activities including violent attacks, corruption, attempted murders and large-scale drug transports” being disrupted.
Garda Assistant Commissioner, John O’Driscoll, emphasised how the Garda and NCA had developed “a very productive working relationship, resulting in communities in the UK and Ireland being better protected.”
As the UK has now left the EU, senior police officers have pushed for the maintaience of links with Europol and access to its extensive central intelligence database – EIS.
Speaking to The Sunday Times, 18th October, the Deputy Cheif Constable of Police Scotland, Malcolm Graham, raised concerns that Brexit could potentially hamper established co-operation with EU law enforcement bodies, such as Europol and Eurojust; partnerships which have produced fruitful results in the past.
DCC Graham cited the tool of the European Arrest Warrant, which had resulted in the arrest and prosecution of cypercriminals, murderers, child abusers, rapists.
As talks between UK and EU negotiators have reached a stalemate, the risk of a no-deal Brexit looms large. In such an event, the UK would become a third country in relation to the EU.
PSNI Chief Constable, Simon Byrne, in his annual report to the Northern Ireland Policing Board listed several challenges the UK’s exit from the EU will likely present, including the NCA’s assessment that “regulatory variance could lead to increased criminal opportunities – smuggling; fraud; money laundering; drug and human trafficking. Criminal profits from these could enrich Organised Crime Groups (OCGs).”
The Common Travel Area between Britain, Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands is now a focal point due to the fact that its perceived vulnerability could be treated as ‘a light touch’ for criminal gangs.
University of Birmingham Professor at the Global Legal department, Fiona de Londras, emphasised that time was of the essence over the next number of weeks as the UK-EU Transition period approaches its end. Professor de Londras said “There is a real possibility of UK policing losing access to the EU’s extensive intelligence, policing and prosecutorial cooperation and reverting to slow, costly, and often diplomatically sensitive attempts at cross-border co-operation.”
‘Gangster’s You Will Eat Your Words’: The Last Word
One offender, described by the NCA to have been a criminal ‘kingpin,’ obviously had the wit to realise that police activity was heating up before being scooped; “The NCA is not “f***ing about,” he wrote.
Upon the release of these messages, NCA Deputy Director Investigations and Operation Venetic’s Gold Commander, Matt Horne remained adamant that the net is closing in on organised criminals across the UK:
“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.
“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.”
Another message, mildly amusing in its content, read,
“Yeah if NCA are on him. Defiantly [definitely] not the firm that go away. That like a pack of hyenigas…[hyaenas]….NCA are the worst bro.”
And how right the criminal class of 2020 were.