Europol: Cracking of EncroChat phone service lead to seizure of hundreds of tons of drugs, over 6,500 arrests worldwide
Investigations triggered by the cracking of encrypted phones three years ago have so far led to more than 6,500 arrests worldwide and the seizure of hundreds of tons of drugs, French, Dutch and European Union prosecutors said Tuesday.
The announcement underscored the staggering scale of criminality — mainly drugs and arms smuggling and money laundering — that was uncovered as a result of police and prosecutors effectively listening in to criminals using encrypted EncroChat phones.
French and Dutch police announced in July 2020 that they had shut down the phone network used by organized crime groups across Europe for assassination attempts and major drug deals.
The French and Dutch investigation gained access to more than 115 million encrypted communications between some 60,000 criminals via servers in the northern French town of Roubaix, prosecutors said at a news conference in the nearby city of Lille, the first review of the operation against customers of EncroChat.
“It helped to prevent violent attacks, attempted murders, corruption and large-scale drug transports, as well as obtain large-scale information on organized crime,” European Union police and judicial cooperation agencies Europol and Eurojust said in a statement. Eurojust stands for European Union Agency for Criminal Justice Cooperation.
As a result, 6,558 suspects have been arrested worldwide, including 197 “high-value targets.” Seized drugs included 30.5 million pills, 103.5 metric tons of cocaine, 163.4 metric tons of cannabis and 3.3 metric tons of heroin. The investigations also led to nearly 740 million euros ($809 million) in cash being recovered and assets or bank accounts worth another 154 million euros ($168 million) frozen.
Police announced in 2020 they had cracked the encryption of EncroChat phones and effectively listened in on criminal gangs.
EncroChat sold smodified Android mobile devices for around 1,000 euros ($1,094) worldwide and offered subscriptions with global coverage for 1,500 euros ($1,641) per six months. The devices were marketed as offering complete anonymity and were said to be untraceable and easy to erase if a user was arrested.
French law enforcement authorities launched investigations into the company operating EncroChat in 2017. The probe led to a device being installed that was able to evade the phones’ encryption and gain access to users’ communications.
“EncroChat phones were presented as guaranteeing perfect anonymity, discretion and no traceability to users,” Europol said.
The devices had functions intended to ensure the automatic deletion of messages, and all data on the device.
“This would allow users to quickly erase compromising messages, for example at the time of arrest by the police,” it said.
Authorities also have identified and detained some of the alleged leaders of the EncroChat provider, Carole Etienne, chief prosecutor at the judicial tribunal of Lille, told reporters.
“Three people were arrested on June 22 in Spain and handed over to France on the basis of European arrest warrants,” she said. “Other individuals have been located outside the European Union and have not yet been charged.”
Partial results of Encrochat-linked investigations have previously been announced by French, Dutch, and British police in 2020 and by German police in 2021.
EncroChat is not the only secret communications network used by criminals that have been infiltrated by law enforcement authorities.
In March 2021, Belgian police arrested dozens of people and seized more than 17 metric tons (18.7 tons) of cocaine after cracking another encrypted chat system, called Sky ECC.
The FBI and other law enforcement agencies went a step further and created an encrypted service — ANOM — that was marketed to criminals in a global sting that led to the arrest of more than 800 suspects and seizure of more than 32 metric tons of drugs, including cocaine, cannabis, amphetamines and methamphetamines.