Police cars at night

Criminal comms system hacked and 746 people arrested in police sting

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A military-grade encrypted communications system used by organised crime groups has been compromised by an international collaboration of law enforcement groups in one of the largest operations of its kind.

Encrochat, the secure messaging system in question, promised complete security for users, including automatically deleted messages, guaranteed anonymity, and a complete data wipe if hacking were detected. Users are charged £1,500 for a six-month contract with one device.

According to law enforcement agencies, it had 60,000 users (10,000 in the UK) who used it for purely criminal purposes.

After four years of work, French and Dutch investigators managed to access Encrochat earlier this year, launching a massive international operation involving dozens of law enforcement agencies, including Interpol.

In June, Encrochat warned its users that its servers had been compromised by a government entity, forcing law enforcement to act as quickly as possible to collect evidence from the platform before the criminals could cover their tracks.

Investigators monitored thousands of devices and analysed millions of messages to collect evidence of drug dealing, illegal gun sales, and money laundering.

An official compared the breach to breaking the Enigma code. Nikki Holland, the National Crime Agency’s director of investigations, said that it was comparable to “having an inside person in every top organised crime group in the country”.

“This is the biggest and most significant law enforcement operation of its kind in the UK and it is previously unmatched in terms of scale,” Holland said. “We have dismantled well-established organised crime groups and have already secured evidence to prosecute a significant number of known criminals that have previously remained beyond our reach.”

So far, nearly 750 people have been arrested in the UK. Holland said that these arrests included “kingpins” who had evaded law enforcement for years.

Police seized two tonnes of class A and class B drugs and street Valium pills worth £80m; 77 guns, including sub-machine guns; 1,800 rounds of ammunition; four grenades; £54m in cash; 55 sports cars, and 73 luxury watches. Investigators are reportedly also pursuing the team who ran Encrochat.

“A number in double figures” of organised crime groups active in the UK have been dismantled as a result of compromising Encrochat.

The National Crime Agency said that UK law enforcement had dealt with over 200 death threats and had certainly prevented plots to dismember, murder and carry out acid attacks on rival gang members.

Law enforcement had been aware of Encrochat as a platform for organised crime for many years, with jailed members of drug gangs operating in Gloucestershire and Liverpool having used the service to facilitate their criminal activities.

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