British law enforcement officials have “broken into” a communication system used by criminals in their biggest ever series of strikes against serious and organised crime.
The National Crime Agency said that EncroChat was used exclusively by criminals with handsets costing £1,500 for a six-month contract.
They said it was a “command and control” system for crime barons and was used as an encrypted way to plot drug deals, kidnaps and murder plots.
Cracking EncroChat had also allowed the NCA to identify police officers and other law enforcement officials who were suspected of corruption and were now being investigated, officials said. They refused to give any more detail.
The NCA said that hacking EncroChat was the law enforcement equivalent of breaking the Nazis’ second world war Enigma code and that dozens of organised crime groups had been dismantled.
The Guardian understands that luck played a big part in the breakthrough, which came two months ago.
Every single police force was involved in hunting down criminals using EncroChat, in a series of names under Operation Venetic.
Officers were in effect, able to watch criminals plotting their every move as they used EncroChat.
The NCA said they had mitigated 200 threats to life as part of the operation, which has so far led to the arrest of 746 suspects and the seizure of at least £54m in cash alleged to be linked to criminals, along with 77 firearms, including an AK-47 assault rifle, submachine guns, handguns, four grenades, and over 1,800 rounds of ammunition.
More than two tonnes of class A and B drugs had been recovered and at least 28m Etizolam pills were seized from an illegal manufacturing laboratory. Over 50 high-end cars had been seized as well as 73 luxury watches.
The agency said that on 13 June criminals were aware EncroChat had been broken into by law enforcement and they were being watched.
The NCA said one sent a message saying: ““This year the police are winning.”
The NCA’s director of investigations, Nikki Holland, said: “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.
“This is the broadest and deepest ever UK operation into serious organised crime.“
Holland added: “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.”
The NCA has faced recent questions about its effectiveness and role. Its leadership is delighted by the successes, which come as they press government for more resources.
The home secretary, Priti Patel, said:“This operation demonstrates that criminals will not get away with using encrypted devices to plot vile crimes under the radar.”
The NCA said law enforcement in Europe had also been going after criminals in their countries, with EncroChat estimated to have 60,000 users worldwide. Law enforcement in France and the Netherlands had also infiltrated EncroChat, the NCA said.
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