Police take down encrypted criminal chat platform EncroChat

The UK's 'biggest ever' law enforcement operation results in arrest of 746, so far.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

Law enforcement in the United Kingdom has touted the takedown of encrypted communications platform EncroChat as its "biggest ever" operation, so far resulting in the arrest of 746 individuals, the seizing of £54 million in cash, 77 firearms, and over two tonnes of drugs.

EncroChat was one of the largest providers of encrypted communications and offered a secure mobile phone instant messaging service. Its sole use was for coordinating and planning the distribution of illicit commodities, money laundering, and plotting to kill rival criminals, the UK's National Crime Agency (NCA) said.

The EncroChat servers have now been shut down.

With 60,000 users worldwide, the NCA said around 10,000 of those were in the UK.

The NCA said that since 2016, it has been working with international law enforcement agencies to target EncroChat and other encrypted communication platforms used by criminals. It said that work, two months ago, resulted in partners in France and the Netherlands infiltrating the platform.

The data harvested was shared via Europol.

"Unbeknown to users, the NCA and the police have been monitoring their every move since then under Operation Venetic -- the UK law enforcement response," the NCA said. "Operation Venetic is the biggest and most significant operation of its kind in the UK."

Users of the platform thought their messages were secure, but authorities had penetrated the Encrochat network by installing a tool to read communications for months.

The NCA said it created the technology and specialist data exploitation capabilities required to process the EncroChat data and help identify and locate offenders by analysing millions of messages and hundreds of thousands of images.

According to the NCA, EncroChat caught onto its operation on June 13 and told users to throw away their phones. For a cost of around £1,500 for a six-month contract, the handsets come with pre-loaded apps for instant messaging, the ability to make VOIP calls, and a kill code which wipes them remotely.

The messages to users included "If NCA then we have a big problem" and "This year the police are winning".

A report from Vice further details some of the nefarious communication sent between users of EncroChat.

"The infiltration of this command and control communication platform for the UK's criminal marketplace is like having an inside person in every top organised crime group in the country," NCA Director of Investigations Nikki Holland said. "This is the broadest and deepest ever UK operation into serious organised crime.

"Together we've protected the public by arresting middle-tier criminals and the kingpins, the so-called iconic untouchables who have evaded law enforcement for years, and now we have the evidence to prosecute them."

Holland also said that any criminal who uses an encrypted phone should be "very, very worried".

EARN IT Act to now be considered by US Senate 

Over in the United States, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed the Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies (EARN IT) Act of 2020 aimed at encouraging the tech industry to take online child sexual exploitation seriously.

A bipartisan group of US lawmakers introduced the bill on March 5, saying that the legislation would enforce standards to protect children from sexual exploitation online

The EARN IT Act is touted as creating a "strong" incentive for the tech industry to take online child sexual exploitation seriously. The Bill amends parts of the Communications Decency Act to remove blanket immunity from federal civil, state criminal, and state civil child sexual abuse material laws entirely, with service providers to be treated like everyone else when it comes to combating child sexual exploitation.

It would establish a national commission on online child sexual exploitation prevention to be responsible for developing voluntary best practices. 

The Bill also aims to bolster enforcement of child sexual abuse material statutes and allows survivors civil recourse. This means that if child sexual abuse material is sent through an encrypted messaging platform, like WhatsApp, states will be able to sue them and hold the company responsible for being unable to moderate those messages. 

While social media platforms already have systems for finding and removing such material, they can't spot it in their messaging services that use end-to-end encryption.

While backers of the EARN IT Act focus on protecting children from being exploited, security experts, civil liberties advocates, and opposing lawmakers have said the Bill actually chips away at encrypted messages.

As reported by sister site CNET, opposers see the Bill as a veiled attempt to erode end-to-end encryption and as a way to target Section 230, which protects free speech by granting tech companies immunity from any liabilities associated with content on their platforms. 


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