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European Authorities Take Down Encryption-Based Criminal Group

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Law enforcement authorities have scored another win in the seemingly never-ending battle against criminal organizations. This time, it is an organized crime network across Europe that’s getting the long arm of the law.

Private, Secure Communications

Earlier this week, the BBC reported that law enforcement in Europe had taken down EncroChat, a crime network that ran on a top-secret communications platform. The operation was spearheaded by the U.K.’s National Crime Agency, with help from Europol and law enforcement agents across both France and the Netherlands.

Per the BBC report, EncroChat ran a private messaging platform, connecting parties in the trade of firearms and illegal substances. The service was encrypted and highly exclusive, although it’s unclear whether every member of the service was involved in unlawful activity.

EncroChat also sold customized Android-based mobile phones, all without their cameras, microphones, and GPS tools. The company loaded its phones with encrypted messaging apps, a secure operating system, and a self-destruct feature that enabled users to wipe their devices by entering a PIN.

The report described this as the biggest and most significant law enforcement operation in the United Kingdom, as the NCA and its partners arrested over 800 members of the network. However, estimates claimed that the network had over 60,000 users.

The operation lasted three months, with over 700 arrests made in the U.K. alone. The NCA also managed to seize £54 million in suspected cash, dozens of guns, and two tons of drugs. 

French police had first breached the network, deploying a “technical device” that penetrated EncroChat’s communication systems. Then, authorities cracked the company’s code in March, and started getting data in April. A separate Motherboard report claims that the police analyzed conversations, which the participants thought were secure. Apart from firearm and drug sales, some members also conducted money laundering schemes.

All in all, EncroChat had customers in about 140 countries. At a conference, Dame Cressida Dick, the commissioner of London’s Metropolitan Police, said:

“This is just the beginning. We will be disrupting organized criminal networks as a result of these operations for weeks and months and possibly years to come.”

Encryption as a Tool for Criminal Activities

The propensity for encryption to be used as a tool for criminal operations is getting more scrutiny from both regulators and industry experts. However, governments might also be gearing up to take action.

Last week, three U.S. Senators introduced a bill that could end warrant-proof encryption. Called the “Lawful Access to Encrypted Data Act,” the bill is backed by Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Tom Cotton (R-AR), and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN).

The bill essentially ends warrant-proof encryption in devices, while also seeking to compel tech companies to comply with authorities after a court warrant is issued on a matter.

If the bill passes, authorities could finally be able to force big tech companies like Apple to break into their devices if there is a national security risk. However, it could also affect the crypto space. Most cryptocurrencies have cryptographic algorithms as part of their core. This bill could require cryptocurrency developers to install back foods that the government can exploit in the future.

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