Hundreds of suspected drug dealers and other criminals are detained today after police in Europe infiltrated an encrypted chat system that thousands are reported to use to investigate illegal operations. The complete failure of this supposedly secure communication method is likely to have a deterrent effect on the shadow industry of crime-oriented technology.
Operation Venetic has been reported by various police authorities, large local news agencies and motherboards in a particularly lively manner and has cited in detail people who apparently came from the groups concerned.
Hundreds of officials worked in numerous agencies in France, the Netherlands, the UK and other countries. It started in 2017 and culminated two months ago when a service called EncroChat was hacked and the news of tens of thousands of users was put under police control.
EncroChat is in some ways an advance over encrypted chat apps like Signal and WhatsApp. Similar to Blackberry, EncroChat provided users with customized hardware, a dedicated operating system and their own servers, and offered an expensive service that cost thousands a year instead of a one-time purchase or download.
Messages on the service were said to be very secure and included a denial by editing conversations later, so a user could theoretically claim after never saying anything. Motherboard's Joseph Cox has been tracking the company for some time now and has far more details about its claims and operations.
Needless to say, these allegations were not entirely true, since the police succeeded in introducing malware into the EncroChat system in early 2020 that fully exposed their users' conversations and pictures. Because of the trustworthy nature of the app, people openly discussed drug deals, murders, and other crimes, and left them sitting for law enforcement ducks.
Throughout spring, criminal operations were broken out with alarming (for them) regularity, but it wasn't until May that users and EncroChat managed to put the pieces together. The company tried to warn its users and release an update, but the cat was out of his pocket. When Operation Venetic teams saw that their operation was now exposed, they struck.
The arrests in the various countries involved (there have been numerous sub-operations, but France and the Netherlands were the main investigators) are close to a thousand, but the exact numbers are not clear. Dozens of weapons, tons (of course, metric) of drugs and the equivalent of tens of millions of dollars in cash were confiscated. More importantly, the chat protocols appear to have given access to people higher up the food chain than ordinary busts.
The fact that the supposedly most popular encrypted chat companies that focus on illegal activities could be completely undermined by the international authorities is likely to dampen the competition. But like other, more domestic encryption challenges, like the FBI's multi-year grievances, this event will rather strengthen the tools in the long run.