France’s secret service hacked the Encrochat crypto service and created a goldmine for law enforcement. Thousands were arrested. Doubts remain about the usability of the data in court.
To escape the increasingly easy surveillance by secret services, police and customs, serious and dubious providers are putting completely encrypted phones on the market. These crypto phones, which cost around €1000, communicate on their own network, delete their content at the touch with a klick and do without software that could provide a backdoor for authorities. However, without success: since 2017, the secret service of the French Gendarmerie has been working with the help of the police from the Netherlands to crack the encrypted Encrochat network, and in July 2020 they reported success.
As far as is known, more than 115 million conversations of around 60,000 users were cracked. This data was then passed on to numerous other countries in order to trigger investigations there. If two or more EU member states were involved, Europol and the judicial authority Eurojust helped coordinate.
For European law enforcement, the hack was a goldmine. This became clear on Tuesday at a press conference in Lille, where Europol and Eurojust took stock of their “Operation Emma”: Worldwide, 6.558 suspects had been arrested on the basis of Encrochat data, including 197 “high-value targets”. Around 740 million euros in cash had been seized and a further 154 million euros had been frozen in bank accounts or in cash. The number of items confiscated is also significant, including more than 100 tonnes of cocaine, 971 vehicles, 83 boats and 40 aircraft, as well as 271 pieces of land or real estate.
Europol described the Encrochat investigations as a “shock wave” in organised crime in Europe and beyond. Murder attempts and robberies had allegedly been prevented, as well as countless crimes in the field of corruption, drug trafficking and money laundering. The Encrochat operators are also being investigated; the leading heads as well as the developers have been identified, said the responsible public prosecutor Carole Etienne at the press conference on Tuesday.
However, doubts remain as to whether the data, which originates from an intelligence service’s warrantless mass surveillance, can be used in court. In Germany, too, the authorities have initiated thousands of new investigations and had to create new posts at judicial authorities for this purpose. Several courts appealed to by the defendants initially ruled that the use of the data collected by the secret service was illegal. However, the Federal Supreme Court in Leipzig decided more than a year ago that it was permissible for the purpose of investigating serious crimes. Moreover, they argued, the information had been collected by France, i.e. an EU member state, and passed on within the framework of European mutual legal assistance. The countries participating in this system are to be trusted in principle, the court explains.
However, the last word has not yet been spoken: Further Encrochat appeals are pending before the German Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe and the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.
Published in German in „nd“.