Hundreds of suspected drug traffickers, arms smugglers, and money laundering couriers were arrested in various European countries this week after French police took down the EncroChat network. According to news reports from the British Broadcasting Company, more than 10,000 EncroChat users appear to reside in the United Kingdom, but the company that operated the secure servers is based in France.
This collaborative law enforcement action is the most significant in the modern history of European crime and punishment. EncroChat is not the first service of its kind, but it is certainly a sign of the times. The business model of this company consists of selling heavily modified Android smartphones that connect to offshore servers and provide encrypted communications. The idea of ultra-secure voice calls, text messages, voice mail, file sharing, and web browsing is nothing new, but what sets EncroChat apart is that the company's marketing strategy specifically targeted the underworld, particularly drug traffickers in Europe.
It is not clear how French law enforcement agencies were able to inject spyware and actively monitor EncroChat communications for months, but their actions allowed them to build a massive database of intelligence data, which ultimately allowed them to take down entire drug trafficking crews. Everything from smuggling routes to payments and from deals to distribution schemes was freely discussed on EncroChat channels because users were convinced that their communications were secure. In some cases, suspects discussed the possibility of settling transactions with cryptocurrency; this was talked about with the intention of making money laundering operations easier.
The most concerning issue with the EncroChat incident is that strikes right at the heart of encrypted communications. In the United States, the Senate is discussing a bill that would either limit or altogether eliminate the use of end-to-end encryption. Such a move would raise some very serious privacy concerns; after all, the appeal of mobile messaging networks such as WhatsApp is the knowledge that chats are not being intercepted. Even worse, encrypted communications have been at the heart of recent meetings between intelligence directors of the "Five Eyes:" the U.S., Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.