British police have carried out their biggest operation ever, arresting “iconic” figures and smashing thousands of conspiracies including murder plots after infiltrating a communications service used by criminals.
The National Crime Agency (NCA) said the cracking of the encryption used by EncroChat, which offered a secure mobile phone instant messaging service and was used by criminals to coordinate their activities, had allowed detectives across the country to make almost 750 arrests.
The agency said it also meant a specialist team had been able to stop rival gangs carrying out kidnappings and executions, “successfully mitigating over 200 threats to life”.
“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,” said NCA Director of Investigations Nikki Holland.
The NCA said it had been working with international partners since 2016 to crack EncroChat which it described as a bespoke encrypted global communications service used exclusively by criminals.
Two months ago, French and Dutch investigators infiltrated the platform, which had 60,000 users worldwide and around 10,000 in the United Kingdom and shared the data via Europol, allowing the authorities to monitor criminals’ messages and movements.
EncroChat, which has now been shut down, had advised its users to throw away their handsets on June 13 after realising it had been compromised.
However, British police have made 746 arrests, claimed 54 million pounds ($67 million) in criminal cash, seized 77 firearms, including an assault rifle and sub-machine guns, and more than two tonnes of drugs, over 28 million Etizolam pills (street Valium) from an illicit laboratory, high value cars, and 73 luxury watches the NCA said.
It added that entire networks had been dismantled in the most significant operation of its kind. Other European law enforcement agencies have also used the information to target crime groups.
In addition, a specialist NCA team, working closely with policing partners, has prevented rival gangs carrying out kidnappings and executions on the UK’s streets by successfully mitigating over 200 threats to life.
NCA 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.
“The NCA is proud to have led the UK part of this operation, working in partnership with policing and other agencies. The results have been outstanding but this is just the start.
“A dedicated team of over 500 NCA officers has been working on Operation Venetic night and day, and thousands more across policing. And it’s all been made possible because of superb work with our international partners.
“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 plays a key role in international efforts to combat encrypted comms. I’d say to any criminal who uses an encrypted phone, you should be very, very worried.”
National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for serious organised crime, Chief Constable Steve Jupp, said:
“This unique operation has specifically focussed on those thought to be involved in the highest levels of organised crime and drugs supply across the UK.
“I want to emphasise that this work is the culmination of meticulous planning to tackle the most serious and organised crimes groups that have been working in our communities.
“Serious organised crime is complex but working together with our Regional Organised Crimes Units and the National Crime Agency we have achieved an unparalleled victory against the kingpin criminals whose criminal activity and violence intimidates and exploits the most vulnerable.
“By dismantling these groups, we have saved countless lives and protected communities across the UK.
“Every UK police force has worked together to carry out these warrants, and I’m extremely proud of their hard work and determination which doesn’t stop here.
“This sort of activity is just one aspect of our continued fight to tackle serious and organised crime. I hope this sends a clear message to the public of our determination to rid communities of this sort of criminalisation.”
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’s relentless targeting of these gangs has helped to keep us all safe. I congratulate them and law enforcement partners on this significant achievement.
“I will continue working closely with the NCA and others to tackle the use of such devices – giving them the resources, powers and tools they need to keep our country safe.”