U.K. Drug Traffickers Sentenced in Latest EncroChat Bust

Published: 19 May 2021

NCA PoliceU.K. National Crime Agency (NCA) officers. (Photo: NCA)

By Natalie Gryvnyak

Four users of the encrypted communications platform EncroChat have been sentenced for drug trafficking in the U.K., following a National Crime Agency (NCA) investigation stemming from the decoding of messages on the once-secured phone system.

The four, all Britons, were sentenced to a combined 12 years for conspiring to import cannabis into the U.K. from Morocco using a yacht between Feb. 29 and June 1, 2020. Authorities said the drugs were set to be distributed across the U.K.

The case formed part of the ongoing Operation Venetic, the U.K. enforcement response to the elimination of the France-based EncroChat, which provided safety features for users to store, transmit and delete sensitive messages.

Announcing the first Operation Venetic bust in July of last year, U.K. authorities described EncroChat as a “bespoke encrypted global communication service used exclusively by criminals.”

An estimated 60,000 users, including as many as 10,000 in Britain, subscribed to the platform and had access to features like self-destructing messages on customized Android phones, with subscriptions running to £1,500 (US$2,124).

EncroChat’s archived website — the original is now offline — stated that the phones guaranteed users absolute anonymity by using two operating systems at once. If the user wanted the device to look harmless, he or she loaded up its regular Android system. If it was necessary to use secret chats, the user switched to the encrypted Encrochat system.

The platform was thought to be among the safest exchanges available, allowing criminals to share plot details. But French authorities, spotting that EncroChat phones were regularly popping up in criminal probes, began sharing information with counterparts in the Netherlands and elsewhere in 2017, France 24 reported.

Eventually, its servers were infiltrated with malware by the European policing body Europol. In July 2020, more than 746 arrests were made across Europe, with more than two tons of drugs, 77 guns and £54 million in suspect cash seized. A statement at the time by the NCA said dozens of crime groups were taken out of action.

U.K. Metropolitan Police Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick told the BBC at the time that the bust would be a "game changer." "This is just the beginning,” she said. “We will be disrupting organised criminal networks as a result of these operations for weeks and months and possibly years to come."

Since then, OCCRP has reported on several other successful law enforcement operations stemming from EncroChat, including operations against an international darknet drug-trafficking ring, the arrest of several members of Arab crime families in Germany, and even the discovery of a secret torture chamber used by criminal groups in the Netherlands.

The cracking of the system has allowed the combined capabilities of law enforcement bodies to be effectively used against organized crime using cyber tools, said Igor Kotsiuba, a cyber safety expert who has advised European political bodies on digital security.

“Basically, intrusion into any cyber system, even with the top cryptography, is a long process and such a successful outcome means that the work was organized and coordinated very well,” he said.

The May 13 sentencing of Rupert Kelly, 29, Daniel Parrot, 48, Gavin Challis, 46, and Jason Tongue, 47, brought operational data straight to court, showing how the hacked information could be successfully shown as evidence.

Kelly, from Dorset in England’s southwest, was said to be the group’s leader, with a plan hatched to bring drugs ashore in coastal Cornwall, using an inflatable boat to take the cargo from the yacht.

Its investigation, the NCA said in a release, showed how the men talked among themselves about drug quantities. Images of the inflatable boat and would-be landing areas were also uncovered, as were multiple cell phones.

“Law enforcement collects information about such platforms for years, up until they understand that there is enough criminal activity (to act),” Kotsiuba told OCCRP.