European law enforcement infiltrated an encrypted communication platform used by criminals across Europe, in what authorities on Thursday called “a massive eavesdropping operation.”
France and the Netherlands led the investigation into EncroChat, a “cryptophone” company selling encrypted communication services and devices that were used by criminal networks, many of which were involved in drug trafficking and organized crime.
The authorities penetrated the platform to get access to “more than 100 million encrypted messages by criminals” and monitored the chats of “thousands of criminals” in real-time in recent months, officials from the French and Dutch authorities and EU agencies Europol and Eurojust said in a joint press conference.
“This investigation is unique because [authorities] could read along in real-time with criminal networks,” said Jannine van den Berg, chief of the Dutch police.
French authorities started investigating EncroChat in 2017 after phones sold by the company were found as part of criminal investigations. Authorities penetrated the company’s servers in northern France and put “a technical device in place to go beyond the encryption technique and have access to users’ correspondence,” they said in a press release.
The company was “one of the largest providers” of encrypted communications in early 2020, according to the authorities.
EncroChat sold anonymous and encrypted communications devices that used a dual operating system and anonymous SIM cards. The firm also removed cameras, microphones, GPS and USB components from its devices to increase security and confidentiality, and its phones had special features to remove messages in case users were arrested.
In early June, some criminals started suspecting their communications were being monitored, the authorities said. On June 13, EncroChat had sent a message to users saying authorities had seized its internet domain and launched a malware attack to get additional access to phones used by its clients. The firm advised them to dispose of the devices.
The data has so far led to more than 100 arrests in the Netherlands, Dutch authorities said, mostly of criminals involved in drug trafficking. It also led to arrests in the U.K., Sweden, Norway and other countries.