Massive criminal network dismantled after international cyber operation

Investigators claim the takedown required the law enforcement equivalent of breaking the Enigma code

The National Crime Agency (NCA) says it has made the biggest ever breakthrough against organised crime after an international effort led to the arrest of hundreds of criminals in the UK.

The EncroChat website, which supplied encrypted mobile phones to drug dealers and criminal syndicates, was infiltrated by French law enforcement over the last three years, leading to the arrest of many "untouchable" criminals across Europe this week.

In the UK alone, more than £50 million in cash has been seized and some 746 suspects arrested as part of 'Operation Venetic'. This has also included the identification of "several" corrupt police and law enforcement officials.

Hacking the website was the law enforcement equivalent of breaking the Enigma code, according to the NCA.

"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," said NCA director of investigations, Nikki Holland. "This is the broadest and deepest ever UK operation into serious organised crime.

"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."

The EncroChat website was used exclusively by criminals, according to the NCA, with 10,000 of its 60,000 users based in the UK. It supplied end-to-end encrypted phones, thought to be worth £900 each, and users needed to pay £1,500 for a 6-month contract. The handsets included features for self-destructing messages and the ability to wipe the device with a single code should it become compromised.

In 2017, France's Gendarmerie military force began investigating these mobile phones after discovering that the EncroChat website was being operated from servers based in France. Following the placement of a "technical device" that could intercept traffic across the servers, investigators were able to decrypt messages sent to and from the phones.

By early 2020, EncroChat was one of the largest providers of encrypted digital communication, according to Europol, with user hotspots particularly present in countries known for cocaine and cannabis trade, along with money laundering.

"Further developments in the investigations led to organising the processing of the data, which was captured on the basis of the provisions of French law and with judicial authorisation, through the frameworks for international judicial and law enforcement cooperation," Europol said in a statement.

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