The infiltration of an encrypted phone messaging service by Belgian authorities led to a record cocaine haul, showing how such secretive communications are crucial both to those operating international drug trafficking rings and those seeking to dismantle them.
Between February 20 and April 5, 28 tons of cocaine, with a street value of nearly $1.5 billion, were seized as part of an international operation involving Belgian, Dutch and French police. Dozens of arrests have also been made in connection with these seizures. These seizures were made after the three countries targeted Sky ECC, an encrypted phone network popular with criminal organizations.
The transportation of this cocaine from a number of Latin American countries had been planned via Sky ECC messages. The hack revealed that Belgian and Dutch criminal groups had been sub-contracted by Colombian groups to then ensure the product reached other buyers in Italy, Albania, the United Kingdom and Ireland, according to the Guardian.
In March, the US Justice Department indicted the CEO of Sky Global, the Canadian company behind Sky ECC, and a distributor of the company’s encrypted phones for “knowingly and intentionally [participating] in a criminal enterprise that facilitated the transnational importation and distribution of narcotics through the sale and service of encrypted communications devices.”
US prosecutors alleged that Sky Global’s encrypted products were designed specifically to help criminals evade law enforcement. For example, Sky Global advertised that it would delete messages if its devices ended up in the hands of the authorities. The company’s employees even used cryptocurrencies and maintained shell companies to guarantee customer anonymity and facilitate money laundering, according to the indictment.
Ironically, the company was so certain in its security its website offered $5 million to anyone capable of hacking its Sky ECC encryption.
171,000 Sky ECC devices had been registered worldwide, across Europe, North America, South America and the Middle-East, but a quarter of these were located in Belgium and the Netherlands alone.
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The interception of Sky ECC messages did not only lead to the Antwerp seizures but also revealed a wide range of other criminal plots in Europe.
Sky ECC also proved to be highly popular among criminal groups in the Balkans, especially Serbia.
And Sky ECC is not the first such communications network to fall recently. In 2020, authorities in Europe hacked EncroChat, a Dutch encrypted communications service provider, again revealing information that led to numerous police operations and over 1,000 arrests around the world. EncroChat worked very similarly to Sky ECC, with users relying on specially designed handsets. In June 2020, shortly after police gained access to its messages, EncroChat clients around the world received an alert telling them to get rid of their phones.
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After the EncroChat hack, authorities in Belgium, the Netherlands and beyond acted on a number of leads, including discovering a torture chamber hidden inside a shipping container in a rural Dutch village, credible threats targeting Bart de Wever, the mayor of Antwerp, and arresting a number of judicial officials and civil servants suspected of having collaborated with gangs.
The EncroChat messages "have given insight in an unprecedented large number of serious crimes, including large, international drug shipments and drug labs, murders, thrashing robberies, extortions, robberies, grave assaults and hostage takings. International drug and money laundering corridors have become crystal clear," according to a Dutch police statement cited by Vice.
In 2018, Canadian communications service Phantom Secure was dismantled by the FBI for similar reasons. Like Sky Global, the company catered to criminals, according to the company’s former CEO, who was sentenced to nine years in prison for facilitating criminal activities.
Criminal groups, both local and transnational, have long relied on encrypted messaging to escape monitoring. Companies like Sky Global even provided additional services such as modifying phones to have cameras, microphones, and GPS disabled, automatically deleting messages after a certain period of time, and resisting cooperation with the authorities.
But the successive shutdowns of EncroChat and Sky ECC have raised hopes that this technological edge will be blunted, at least temporarily.
“It is a big blow because, in Belgium and a great part of the criminal underworld in the Netherlands, they really trusted Sky as a system,” Joris van der Aa, a Belgium crime reporter, told the Guardian.
“They were so full of confidence, and the police now have so much information on how the underworld was structured, bank accounts, all the corrupt contacts are being arrested. It takes years to build these networks,” he added.