The suspects were as baffled as anyone as to why they were suddenly being picked up, perhaps fearing the work of a supergrass. But then, on June 12, some of the most senior members of Britain’s criminal fraternity received a text on their mobiles that made everything clear. The top-secret, encrypted messaging platform EncroChat, which they had for four years used for their business, had been compromised by law enforcement agencies. The message from the shadowy France-based provider was stark: “We can no longer guarantee the security of your device. We advise you to power off and physically dispose of your device immediately.”
But for many of the 10,000 UK users it was too late. The police had already begun kicking down front doors. EncroChat handsets, which cost around £3,000 a year, provided gangsters with a supposedly secure network on which they could deal drugs, order gangland hits, arrange money laundering and carry out their underworld activity.
Emerging in 2016 to replace an end-to-end encrypted service that was disabled, EncroChat became the go-to platform for top-tier criminals.
Britain’s National Crime Agency, with European law enforcement bodies, had spent four years trying to crack the system without success. But in April, cyber specialists working with the French police managed to hack into the network without being detected.
They were able to eavesdrop on millions of chilling messages and harvest a treasure trove of evidence. Nikki Holland, director of investigations at the NCA, said: “It was like getting the keys to Aladdin’s cave”, while her deputy, Matt Horne, likened it to “cracking the criminals’ Enigma code”.
Entirely unconnected, didn’t James Stunt just get arrested?
And the bloke I’d really like not to be at the moment is the cryptographer behind EncroChat. That sounds like a rather desperate position to have right now.