A top-secret spying operation by a European police team has sent “shockwaves” through organised crime, including Irish gangs.
The high-tech hack of encrypted communication devices — conducted by a joint French-Dutch investigation team — enabled police to intercept assassination attempts and major drug and firearm shipments.
The spying operation — which allowed officers to monitor in real time messages between criminals — has demonstrated the technical ability of law enforcement agencies to breach the supposedly “impenetrable” encryption devices and undermined the confidence of crime bosses in the devices.
Senior gardaí have said that major Irish crime gangs, including the Kinahan cartel, use encrypted phones to organised drug and firearm trafficking, money laundering and assassinations.
Numerous prosecutions against a range of Kinanhan associates have produced evidence regarding the use of encrypted phones in murder plots.
Senior gardaí previously told the Irish Examiner that the likes of the Kinahan cartel regularly distribute a large number of encrypted phones — 20-25 at a time — among associates with each phone costing €1,500-€1,600.
The joint French-Dutch investigation team gained live access to millions of messages on the EncroChat encrypted network.
Analysis of the colossal amount of information was conducted by the EU police agency Europol. Europol said the dismantling of the network has sent “shockwaves through organised crime across Europe”. It said: “Over the last months, the joint investigation made it possible to intercept, share and analyse millions of messages exchanged between criminals to plan serious crimes. For an important part, these messages were read by law enforcement in real time, over the shoulder of the unsuspecting senders.”
Britain’s National Crime Agency said it has been working with international agencies since 2016 to target EncroChat and other platforms and that "two months ago" the French-Dutch team infiltrated it. The NCA said there were 60,000 users of EncroChat worldwide and around 10,000 users in Britain.
Europol said it shared information with other countries which were not part of the Joint Investigation Team, such as Britain, Sweden and Norway.
Gardaí would not confirm if they benefited from information under this operation and issued a generic statement: “An Garda Síochána continues to support and work closely with all international stakeholders, including Europol. Any queries relating to Eurojust-Europol press release should be sent directly to Europol.”
Europol said they are unable to share such information and referred queries back Gardaí.
Garda sources indicated that recent high-profile cash and drug seizures here did not appear to result from any information from the operation but could not be sure, nor if they may be of use in upcoming operations.
Garda Security and Intelligence is aware of the operations in other countries.
The NCA said its operation resulted in 746 arrests and the seizure of £54m in criminal cash and 77 firearms. The PSNI said that they had seized 15 Encro phones and £365,000 in cash.