The Fraud Examiner

A Debate About Information Gathering Admissibility: A Look at European Law Enforcement’s Hack of EncroChat

Mason Wilder, CFE
Research Specialist, Association of Certified Fraud Examiners                                 

In July 2020, it was discovered that a technologically sophisticated and unprecedented law enforcement operation in Europe allowed authorities to monitor and collect millions of communications between organized criminals over a period of months without the criminals’ knowledge. The operation, targeting an encrypted communications provider that offered software and even altered Android smartphones tailored for the platform, spawned hundreds of investigations and provided unparalleled insight into a wide range of organized criminal activity. Some of those investigations have now reached their prosecution phases, leading to questions about the collection and admissibility of crucial evidence produced by the operation.

The Platform: EncroChat

EncroChat emerged in 2016, marketing itself as a secure communications service that also offered smartphone devices tailored for privacy and security. The company utilized end-to-end encryption, modification of the devices themselves (removal of camera, GPS and microphone), and developed its own operating system that allowed users to remotely erase the device’s contents to create a device and platform ideal for the secure communication of sensitive information. The devices sold for approximately $1,000 and required a subscription of approximately $1,500 for six months of service, but generally had to be purchased through resellers, sometimes via in-person meetings that resembled drug deals.

Although nothing about the devices or service violated any laws, it should come as no surprise that EncroChat became very popular in the world of organized crime. The ability to communicate and arrange specific details of illegal transactions without fear of law enforcement monitoring the communications is obviously an attractive prospect for drug dealers, money launderers, smugglers, human traffickers or any other member of a criminal organization.

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