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AFP
July 3, 2020

Hundreds arrested after European police hack crime chat network

World

AFP
July 3, 2020

THE HAGUE: Police said Thursday they had arrested more than 800 people across Europe after shutting down an encrypted phone network used by organised crime groups to plot murders and drug deals.

French and Dutch police said they hacked into the EncroChat network so they could read millions of messages “over the shoulders” of suspects as they communicated with custom-made devices. Britain said it had arrested 746 people as a result of the operation in what it called a “massive breakthrough” against organised crime, while there were also arrests in countries including Norway, Spain, and Sweden.

EncroChat sent a message to its estimated 60,000 users in June warning them to throw away their 1,000-euro devices as its servers had been “seized illegally by government entities”. It has now been shut down.

The hack allowed police “an unprecedented look into the heart” of organised crime groups, Wil van Gemert, Deputy Executive Director of the EU police agency Europol, told a press conference in The Hague.

Police then foiled crimes including “violent attacks, corruption, attempted murders and large-scale drug transports,” Europol and the EU judicial agency Eurojust added in a joint statement. “Certain messages indicated plans to commit imminent violent crimes and triggered immediate action.

Some of the encrypted messages “were so worrying that it went far beyond our imagination,” said Jannine van den Berg, Chief Constable of the Dutch police´s central unit. “It was as if though we were sitting at the table where criminals were chatting,” she told the press conference. French authorities launched the investigation in 2017 after finding that EncroChat phones were “regularly” found in operations against criminal groups and that the company was operating from servers in France.

They then “put a technical device in place to go beyond the encryption technique and have access to the users´ correspondence,” the statement said. Between 90 and 100 percent of EncroChat clients were linked to organised crime, according judicial sources, with between 50,000 to 60,000 of the phones in circulation.

Dutch police then became involved based on information shared by French police. A joint Dutch-Franco investigation team unearthed a “colossal number of encrypted data,” Carole Etienne, the public prosecutor for the French city of Lille, told AFP.