Hacked Encrypted Private Messaging Leads to Biggest Organised Crime Bust in Years
Duncan Campbell reports on the haul of guns, drugs, and money by Operation Venetic, but also potential legal problems over the hacked data
The dentist’s chair, with its accompaniment of handcuffs, pliers, scalpels and remote access video cameras, may be the most striking image of Operation Venetic – currently described as the most far-ranging criminal investigation in which the British police have ever been involved.
The photo of the inside of a suitably sound-proofed shipping container, uncovered by Dutch police at Wouwse Plantage on the border with Belgium, speaks volumes.
It is more than half a century since members of the Richardson gang were arrested in south London for their involvement in the extreme punishment of those who offended them and were jailed for up to 25 years at the end of what became known as “the Torture Trial”.
Their famous enforcer, the late “Mad” Frank Fraser, was accused of pulling out the teeth of his victims with pliers. He joked later that one of them “gave me good due as a dentist, said it was absolutely painless”.
While the torture chamber may have been found in the Netherlands, there was apparently no shortage of plans for similar mayhem in the UK, according to the National Crime Agency’s deputy director of investigations, Matt Horne, who is in overall command of the operation.
“There were over 200 threats to life that we know of and plots to cause serious harm, kidnap, torture, murder, disposal of bodies, acid attacks,” he told Byline Times.
The main reason for the threats, he said, were turf wars or tit-for-tat revenge attacks.
While the dentist’s chair may be more eye-catching than the hundreds of photos of seized drugs, weapons, ammunition and cash that were also released by the police, the heart of the operation is the distinctly unphotogenic EncroChat system through which the suspects were tracked and arrested July 2020.
EncroChat started out as a secure – and expensive – form of communication for people in the public eye and some members of the Royal Family.
Amazingly, members of the normally very cautious criminal fraternity imagined that their own internal encrypted communications were so secure that they could freely discuss drug deals, murder plots and weapons purchases.
“It was a marketplace,” said Horne. “They would have a code name like ‘DeadlyEffect’ to hide their true identity and use code words on their status updates to show what criminal commodities they could supply or wanted, for cocaine it could be ‘tops’ and for cannabis it could be ‘garden’.”
The EncroChatters only became aware in June this year that their exchanges were being monitored and shared. Of the 60,000 people around the world who subscribed, 10,000 were in the UK, which is why there was such a large number of people arrested here: initially 746, but that figure is now well over 800 and increasing daily.
A computer spits out titles for operations at random and the fact that Venetic is an ancient language last used in northern Italy in the first century BC bears no connection to an investigation that has uncovered thousands of kilos of cocaine and heroin, a stack of handguns and semi-automatic weapons and more than £50 million in laundered money, not to mention 28 million Etizolam (street valium) tablets.
The Dutch Connection
The operation stretches tellingly from Amsterdam to, well, let’s say Ecclefechan.
In the 1990s a number of British professional criminals relocated to the Netherlands – it was a relaxed place, attracted less attention from the UK police, and provided easy access to the European market.
The most active of them was Curtis Warren, who settled in a Dutch village and became the subject of a joint British-Dutch investigation, Operation Crayfish, which led in 1996 to the seizure of 400 kilos of cocaine, 60 kilos of heroin, 1,500 kilos of cannabis, handguns and false passports.
Warren was jailed for 12 years but the Netherlands connection, both within the European criminal fraternity and between the respective police forces, was cemented.
Last year, the NCA seized a Dutch yacht off the coast of Cornwall with 2.1 tonnes of cocaine on it and noted then the sophisticated encrypted communications system onboard.
It was Amsterdam that housed the headquarters of EncroChat, which offered “user-friendly secure instant messaging” with “guaranteed security”. The current investigation kicked off first in Paris where the National Gendarmerie had hacked into EncroChat’s French users. The French/Dutch information was then shared with the UK and other European countries.
If you were to look up the crime news for Ecclefechan in July this year, you would find two stories. For one, the headline was ‘Witness Appeal Following Suspected Garden Fence Vandalism’ and the other was ‘Police Seize £12 million Haul of Coke, Heroin and Guns In sting’.
Ecclefechan is a village in the south-west of Scotland, just over the border with England, and it was just outside the village on the A74 that detectives found a car containing 60 kilos of cocaine and £750,000 in cash.
Ecclefechan itself is more Brigadoon than Chicago but the fact that the tentacles of Venetic should reach there – not to mention Aviemore and the rather more predictable pastures of London, Merseyside, Leeds, Belfast and Cardiff – is an indication of its enormous scope.
“It was widespread, all four corners of the country, the scale is bigger than ever before,” said Horne.
Those arrested were “mainly British with a spread of other nationalities”. The seizures north of the border were a reminder that Scotland has the highest per capita rate of drugs deaths in Europe.
Cracking the Code
Jannine van den Berg, the head of the Dutch national police force, said that the encryption breakthrough “was as though we were sitting at the table where criminals were chatting among themselves”.
Nikki Holland, head of investigations at the UK’s National Crime Agency, described the operation as “like cracking the Enigma code”.
The Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick described Venetic as “the most significant activity, certainly in my career, we have ever carried out against serious and organised criminality across London”. (If the dentist’s chair is a throwback to the 1960s, the very idea in those days that female officers would ever be in such key posts would have been unthinkable to both criminals and police).
While the police are celebrating what they see as a major breakthrough –the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, was duly present for a photo opportunity at one of the London arrests – there remains scepticism elsewhere.
“A magnitude of bigging up on the part of the feds which is something the media always bought into” is one member of the criminal fraternity’s assessment.
There will also be legal issues regarding admissibility of the data.
“Evidential difficulties will include issues surrounding attribution, i.e. how are the authorities attributing chats, or specific encrophones, to the accused?” said defence solicitor Abbas Nawrozzadeh, who has been studying the operation. “The danger, however, is where an accused is standing trial with very little evidence, and where a jury – who are, of course, members of the public – have been fed the idea that just being in possession of a encrypted device makes you guilty. It is not unlawful to possess an encrypted phone. Like everything else, it’s what you do with it that counts.”
He added: “WhatsApp is used by millions of people – and will have a higher proportion of criminals using it – should the authorities hack that next?”
More than a dozen UK law firms are now very specifically advertising themselves as offering advice to any EncroChat users arrested.
So, at a time when, because of COVID-19, the Second World War is constantly being evoked, these arrests are a reminder of that old war-time slogan – “careless talks cost lives”.