EncroChat Hack: Police hack “Whatsapp for criminals”

July 15, 2020

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2 min read

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What's going on here?

Hundreds of arrests have been made in the UK after EncroChat, a top-secret messaging service used by criminals, was infiltrated by police in France and the Netherlands.

What does this mean?

In what is considered the largest-ever operation of its kind in the UK, Operation Venetic launched in 2016, in collaboration with international law enforcement agencies targeting EncroChat. In May 2020, the platform was infiltrated by agencies in France and the Netherlands and the data was monitored via Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency

Encrypted or “encro” phones were originally designed for military usage but are now widely associated with criminal activity. Unlike pay-as-you-go phones or smartphones, the “encro” telephone, has hitherto been an entirely secure and anonymous method of contact which cannot be traced.

EncroChat offered a secure instant messaging service and was used by 60,000 people across the world to plan the distribution of illicit goods, partake in money laundering and even plot the murders of rival criminals.

What's the big picture effect?

The ambush of EncroChat has led to mass arrests and will no doubt result in an increase in criminal prosecutions in the UK. However, questions have been raised as to whether the hack was carried out lawfully.

UK law, specifically the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 (IPA), prescribes strict rules on the validity of intercepted communication. If the EncroChat data is found to have been illegally acquired, the evidence could be considered as “intercept” evidence, which under section 56 of IPA cannot generally be used in criminal courts (exceptions are contained in Schedule 3 to IPA). In such circumstances a court may “stay” the proceedings as the Convention right to a fair trial cannot otherwise be guaranteed. Alternatively, the evidence may be withheld from a jury

If the hacking of EncroChat is deemed lawful, the evidence is likely to be admissible unless it can be excluded as “unfair evidence” under section 78 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. If officials are relying exclusively on evidence obtained from a hacked server, the evidence is open to challenge. According to criminal specialists 5 Saint Andrews Hill Chambers “a systematic request for disclosure of the step by step processes used to obtain and gather the evidence and material must be made by any lawyer who is defending a suspect where such evidence is being relied upon by the prosecution.” 

As Operation Venetic progresses and assuming that the content unearthed is admissible, the next issue will be attributing anonymous messages to individual suspects. Whatever the outcome, a rival service to EncroChat is already gaining subscribers, so this high stakes game of cat and mouse will rumble on.

Report written by Mimosa Canneti 

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