Thousands of organized crime members are using EncroChat, a modified smartphone that offers encrypted communication among subscribers and it cannot be intercepted by law enforcement of security agencies even by using sophisticated intercepting equipment. EncroChat phones were presented as guaranteeing perfect anonymity, discretion, and no traceability to users.
According to Western security agencies, EncroChat phone sets are being used in a number of countries in the world, while it also is used in a number of Asian, African and Middle Eastern nations such as the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Nepal, Nigeria, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Caribbean island nations etcetera. The majority of EncroChat users were found in countries with high levels of organized crime, particularly those involved in drug trafficking and money laundering.
According to Europol, Since law enforcement cracked the encrypted EncroChat phones three years ago, police around the world have arrested 6,558 organized crime suspects and seized cash and assets worth nearly a billion dollars.
The Europe-based service provider EncroChat sold modified smartphones that offered encrypted communication among subscribers and were mostly used by organized crime members to plan criminal activities.
The ongoing investigation into the communication network and its users started in 2017 after authorities discovered that EncroChat phones were regularly found during operations against organized criminal groups.
The seized sum of 900 million euros (US$985 million) so far includes over 739 million euros (US$809.06 million) in cash and 154 million euros (US$168.60 million) worth of now frozen assets and bank accounts.
Officials have also seized over 30.5 million pills of chemical drugs, 103.5 tons of cocaine, 163.4 tons of cannabis, and 3.3 tons of heroin, as well as 971 vehicles, 271 estates or homes, 923 weapons, 21,750 rounds of ammunition, 68 explosives, 83 boats, and 40 planes that were being used for criminal purposes.
According to Al Jazeera, on July 2, the United Kingdom’s National Crime Agency (NCA) announced that after a cross-nation investigation, more than 800 people were arrested in several European countries for illicitly trading in drugs and guns. The operation was launched after the French police managed to intercept messages on EncroChat, an encrypted messaging platform operated on modified Android devices.
These arrests have been celebrated by police forces internationally, and have been breathlessly reported by media outlets, which have been quick to label those arrested “criminals” and “iconic untouchables”. The due process and presumption of innocence that we expect in developed democracies appear to have been dispensed with in a quest for headlines, fueled by savvy police PR departments.
The encrypted phone service had functions intended to ensure the automatic deletion of messages and a specific PIN code to delete all data on the device. This would allow users to quickly erase compromising messages, for example, at the time of arrest by the police.
Europol further said, the device could be erased remotely by the reseller/helpdesk. EncroChat sold the crypto telephones for around 1,000 euros (US$1,094.80) each and offered subscriptions with worldwide coverage for 1,500 euros (US$1,642.16) for a six-month period, with 24/7 support.
The majority of EncroChat users were found in countries with high levels of organized crime, particularly those involved in drug trafficking and money laundering.
What is EncroChat?
EncroChat offered modified Android and BlackBerry devices with pre-installed encrypted applications for messaging, voice calls, and note-taking. These devices, known as “carbon units,” had their GPS, camera, and microphone functions disabled for privacy. EncroChat devices were popular among criminals and had a “panic button” feature to erase all data. The devices could boot into a secret encrypted partition for secure communication through French servers. The service cost €1,000 per device and €1,500 for a six-month contract. EncroChat had resellers in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Madrid, and Dubai, but operated as a secretive firm.
The service had around 60,000 subscribers at the time of its closure.
EncroChat handsets emerged in 2016 as a replacement for a previously disabled end-to-end encrypted service. The company had revealed on 31 December 2015 the Version 115 of EncroChat OS, which appears to be the first public release of their operating system. The earliest version of the company’s website archived by the Wayback Machine dates to 23 September 2015.
According to a May 2019 report by the Gloucester Citizen, EncroChat was originally developed for “celebrities who feared their phone conversations were being hacked”. In the 2015 murder of English mobster Paul Massey, the killers used a similar service providing encrypted BlackBerry phones based on PGP. After the Dutch and Canadian police compromised their server in 2016, EncroChat turned into a popular alternative among criminals for its security-oriented services in 2017–2018.