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Belgian Police Hit Organized Crime with Hundreds of Simultaneous Raids

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Monday, March 23, 2020 file photo, shipping containers are offloaded in the Port of Antwerp, Belgium. Belgium’s federal prosecutor’s office says a police operation of an unprecedented scale targeting organized crime is taking place across Belgium on Tuesday, March 9, 2021. EuroPol Press Release at Bottom.

With thousands of containers reaching Antwerp every day, the Belgian port city is one of Europe’s main ports of entry to Europe for Cocaine. Trafficking in the city has led to a surge of violence recently, with gun battles and grenade attacks frequently taking place. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, File)

Police raids took place across Europe after encrypted phone network was shut down, 

When Sky ECC fell, a Canadian company, so too did Belgian crime lords.

Police raids took place across Europe after encrypted phone network was shut down, Belgian, Dutch and French police ‘looked over shoulders’ of gangs after hacking Sky EEC network.

This provided the police with a wealth of information on criminal organizations, especially in the Antwerp area. There, but also in Limburg and in other provinces, 1,500 investigators carried out raids this morning in what the public prosecutor called “the largest police operation in Belgium.”

The operation is targeting organized crime, including not only drug traffickers themselves but also informants, money launderers, and people who have accepted bribes in exchange for providing services to criminals. There are said to be international implications, as well.

The investigation has been going on for two years, during which separate investigations were opened when information came to light that required immediate intervention.

Police in Belgium and the Netherlands have arrested at least 80 people and carried out hundreds of raids after shutting down an encrypted phone network used by organized crime groups.

When Dutch and French police came crashing down on organized crime in the Netherlands last year, criminals in the Belgian underworld of kidnapping, money laundering, cocaine, and weapons trading didn’t break a sweat.

After all, they were using ‘the world’s most secure messaging app’ for their illicit dealings in everything from drug trafficking to torture and murder, and the Port of Antwerp was their playground.

Additionally, “as many Sky ECC devices as possible” were also seized from the selected users who were identified, according to him.

According to the public prosecutor, investigators have made a breach in the walls of organized crime, and “truly hallucinatory” cases have been discovered.

“Once again, it shows how criminals abuse the Port of Antwerp. The legal economy is being hijacked and abused,” he said. “And we cannot and will not let that happen.”

In the coming weeks and months, several new cases will be opened, or additional reports will be drawn up in ongoing cases, according to Van Leeuw.

Faith in the Canadian Company:

The reason Belgian crime lords slept soundly at night was due in part to their faith in a Canadian company. Sky ECC sold expensive custom phones equipped with their special encrypted messaging service. Texts sent with the phones were automatically deleted after thirty seconds, and if a user entered a “panic” password, the contents of the device were immediately erased.

With cameras, microphones, and GPS disabled, the phones were essentially impossible to track, and the messages supposedly impossible to crack.

While critics said that the majority of their users were criminals, Sky ECC defended their “strong belief in a right to privacy” and resisted cooperating with police and judicial authorities. Their website offered a 5 million USD (€4.2 million) prize to anyone who could crack its encryption.

“We succeeded. We will send Sky ECC the account number of the federal police,” federal prosecutor Frédéric Van Leeuw told De Standaard.

But if Belgian authorities are really planning on collecting their reward, they’ll have to look for another way to get in touch – Sky ECC’s website is no longer operating.

Cracking the encrypted app gave authorities access to the six million messages being sent per day between major criminals – not street dealers or thieves, but harbour bosses and corrupt lawyers, crime families and leaders in countries from Dubai all the way to Finland and Norway.

For almost a month, between 15 February and the beginning of this week, detectives in Belgium and the Netherlands read the messages live.

Then on Tuesday, they launched the largest police operation to have ever taken place in Belgium. Around 1,600 police officers were deployed across the country in 200 raids, seizing 17 tons of cocaine, eight luxury cars, three cash machines, police uniforms, and €1.2 million in cash along with various firearms.

48 people were arrested, including a criminal lawyer from Antwerp. A leader of Belgium’s Hell’s Angels (a motorcycle club often associated with criminal activity, and banned in the Netherlands and Germany), along with an Antwerp kickboxer sponsored by Sky ECC, had their homes searched. Members of crime families from Antwerp and Limburg were pulled from their beds.

And the work is only just beginning,  Lawyers among those arrested in crackdown organiszed crime:

At least two lawyers were among those arrested in Tuesday’s landmark operation against organised crime following the cracking of the encrypted messaging service Sky ECC, which was popular with Belgian criminals.

A 30-year-old lawyer and a 28-year-old lawyer who was still a trainee, both in Antwerp, are suspected of participating in a criminal organization.

Both lawyers have defended clients in drug-related cases in the past, including ones of some notoriety, and both are alleged to have been supplying encrypted phones to the criminal underworld.

Police crack down on drug trafficking in major operation two years in the making:

Police say they have opened hundreds of cases relating to money laundering, corruption, arms trafficking, and violent crime. Yesterday’s raids were primarily targeted at people responsible for distributing the Sky ECC phones, a subscription for which can cost thousands of dollars per year.

In a statement, the Canadian company said that it “firmly denies any allegation that it is the ‘platform of choice for criminals’.” They point to a need for such phones for celebrities, and businesses concerned with intellectual property theft.

For its part, the company claims that it wasn’t cracked, but rather that police distributed fake Sky ECC phones with the company’s branding through illicit channels, tricking criminals into thinking they had the real thing.

But Sky ECC had no explanation for what it described as “temporary interruptions in connection with its servers.”

The prevalence of their phones when it comes to criminals in Belgium and the Netherlands is astounding – one in four active users of the service is in one of the two countries (6,000 in Belgium and 12,000 in the Netherlands).

There are 171,000 active Sky ECC phones worldwide, but only 70,000 of those make monthly calls on the network.

About half of the users in Belgium were located in or around the port of Antwerp, which isn’t entirely surprising. With Antwerp being one of the world’s largest ports, Belgium is ranked 5th in the world as an entrypoint for counterfeit goods arriving by shipping container. Because less than 2% of such containers are physically searched, they’re an ideal method of transport for those involved in organised crime.

Or an ideal torture chamber. One such container by the Belgian-Dutch border was found to have been converted into just that, its discovery last summer also the result of the cracking of an encrypted messaging service – in this case Encrochat. Its cracking by French and Dutch investigators led to over a hundred arrests in the Netherlands and uncovered a network of drug laboratories.

A number of investigations are also still currently underway in Belgium based on the information from that cracking.

Police expect that over the coming weeks and months, several new cases will be opened (or additional reports will be drawn up in ongoing ones) now that Sky ECC has followed.

Public prosecutors are calling it a breach in the walls of organized crime, all because ‘‘the world’s most secure messaging app’’ wasn’t so uncrackable after all.

17 Tons Of Cocaine:

Belgian prosecutors said investigators cracked the encrypted messaging service Sky ECC and intercepted a billion messages during their two-year investigation that also helped seize more than 17 Tons of cocaine.

Dutch police and prosecutors seized 28 firearms in the port city of Rotterdam. Earlier in the investigation, they intercepted thousands of kilograms (pounds) of Cocaine, Heroin and Hashish, prosecutors said.

Brussels:  Belgian police made 48 arrests Tuesday during an operation of unprecedented scale targeting organized crime, after investigators cracked an encrypted communications network popular with criminals, prosecutors said.

About 200 searches mobilizing more than 1,500 police officers including special units were carried out simultaneously throughout the country of 11.5 million people, the federal prosecutors’ office said. Police seized 1.2 million euros ($1.4 million) in cash, alongside firearms, jewelry, diamonds, police uniforms and luxury cars.

Meanwhile, Dutch police and prosecutors said in a statement that they arrested 30 suspects Tuesday throughout the country and searched 75 homes and offices.

Belgian prosecutors said investigators cracked the encrypted messaging service Sky ECC and intercepted a billion messages during their two-year investigation that also helped seize more than 17 tons of cocaine.

According to the investigation, there are about 171,000 phones equipped with the Sky ECC service across the world.

Searches started at around 5 a.m. and mainly took place in the region of Antwerp. There were no major incidents, police said, adding that the operation dismantled several international organizations specialized in drug trafficking.

With thousands of shipping containers reaching Antwerp every day, the Belgian port city is one of Europe’s main entry ports for cocaine. Trafficking in the city has led to a surge of violence recently, with gun battles and grenade attacks taking place.

Last year, authorities in Belgium and three other countries dismantled a drug trafficking network that shipped hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of cocaine into Western Europe. The investigation, which started when a container with 2.8 tons of cocaine was found in Antwerp, uncovered an international network with connections in at least four European countries and South America.

Dutch police and prosecutors seized 28 firearms in the port city of Rotterdam. Earlier in the investigation, they intercepted thousands of kilograms (pounds) of cocaine, heroin and hashish, prosecutors said.

Law enforcement officials “succeeded in gaining access to hundreds of millions of messages” from users of encrypted messaging service Sky ECC, the statement by Dutch prosecutors said.

The Sky ECC server was taken offline Tuesday and seized by Dutch authorities, according to the prosecution statement.

Prosecutors said while monitoring the encrypted messages they were able to prevent dozens of planned crimes, including kidnappings and murders.

The operation followed a similar crackdown in July last year when European police cracked another encrypted communications network called EncroChat, allowing them to monitor criminals in real time as they planned drug shipments, arms deals and assassinations.

Prosecutors said Tuesday that many former EncroChat users migrated last year to Sky ECC:

Sky ECC became popular with drug criminals after its successor Encrochat was cracked in 2020 by French and Dutch investigators, who were able to intercept over 100 million messages sent via the app.

That led to over a hundred suspects being arrested in the Netherlands, uncovering a network of laboratories where crystal meth and other drugs were being produced and allowing police to seize 8,000 kilos of cocaine and almost €20 million.

A number of investigations are also still currently underway in Belgium based on the information from that cracking. While it led to panic among major criminal operations in the Netherlands, there wasn’t much of a reaction at the time in the Belgian underworld.

“Almost everyone in Antwerp switched from Encrochat to Sky two years ago,” a source told the Gazet van Antwerpen in July last year, adding that major Antwerp criminals in Dubai also used Sky ECC.

The Canadian company, which calls itself “the world’s most secure messaging app,” had previously said “hacking is impossible.” It defended its services, stating they “strongly believe that privacy is a fundamental human right.”

But critics say more than 90% of its customers are criminals.

Police in Belgium and the Netherlands have arrested at least 80 people and carried out hundreds of raids after shutting down an encrypted phone network used by organized crime groups.

Belgian, Dutch and French police said they had hacked into the Sky ECC network, allowing them to look “over the shoulders” of suspects as they communicated with customised devices to plot drug deals and murders.

“During an action day on Tuesday … numerous house searches and seizures were made in Belgium and the Netherlands,” Europol and its judicial twin agency, Eurojust, said in a statement.

In France: law officials have identified about 2,000 users of Sky ECC “allowing for procedures to be opened relating to large-scale drug operations and attacks on people,” the Paris prosecutor said. “The network we are dealing with seems to be almost exclusively used by large-scale criminals.”

Police launched a top-secret operation to crack the Sky ECC network – which operates over a special phone – and “as of mid-February, authorities have been able to monitor the information flow of approximately 70,000 users,” The Hague-based law agencies said.

Users paid high subscription prices for the encrypted devices, “up to €2,000 (£1,713) per line and for six months,” the French prosecutor said.

Sky ECC in a statement denied it had been hacked. It said, however, that phoney devices sold through unauthorised channels had been compromised by a phishing application.

“Sky ECC has not been contacted by any investigative authority,” it added, saying the company “has a strict zero-tolerance policy that prohibits any criminal activity on its platforms”.

In Belgium:, police raided about 200 homes and arrested at least 48 people. Police confiscated at least 185 devices with Sky ECC encryption.

As part of “Operation Argus” in the Netherlands, police arrested 30 people and searched 75 homes. Police also recovered 28 guns in Rotterdam.

“We managed to crack the crypto communication of crime groups who smuggled large quantities of cocaine and carried out liquidations,” Amsterdam DC Jonne Janssen said. “I’m not talking about being able to read a small amount. I’m talking about hundreds of millions of messages that our now in our hands,” she said in a video statement.

The breakthrough comes after police last year hacked into the EncroChat network, which operated in a similar fashion.

“Many criminals decided to move over to Sky ECC after that,” Europol spokesman Jan Op Gen Oorth told AFP. “But police cracked that too, and it was like being able to look over the criminals’ shoulders as they were sending messages in real time.

“The latest breakthrough and arrests so far is just the tip of the iceberg. Many more are going to follow.”

Do you work for Sky? 

Do you have documents related to these arrests or the company? We’d love to hear from you. Using a non-work phone or computer, you can contact Joseph Cox securely on Signal on +44 20 8133 5190, Wickr on josephcox, OTR chat on [email protected], or email [email protected]

Sky is part of the encrypted phone industry, where companies take stock devices, make physical alterations such as removing the microphone and GPS functionality, and installing their own encrypted messaging applications. Many of the companies’ customers include serious organized criminals, such as hitmen, drug traffickers, and weapon smugglers. Resellers based in different countries or regions typically sell devices on behalf of the main company.

“Around the world, there are approximately 171,000 SKY ECC telephones in service; mainly in Europe, North America, some Central and Latin American countries (mainly Colombia) and the Middle East. Each month, around 70,000 of these phones actively communicate on the SKY ECC network,” the police release reads, adding that a large concentration, around a quarter of active users, are in Belgium and the Netherlands. Specifically, half of those are used in Antwerp, Belgium’s bustling port city.

“Given that the services provided by the organization seem to be almost exclusively criminal in nature, the federal prosecutor’s office decided at the end of 2018 to open an investigation against SKY ECC and against the people who make these phones available to the criminal community,” the release added.

Authorities have arrested 48 people in the wake of obtaining these messages, the announcement adds.

“More than 1.2 million euros, 15 prohibited weapons, including six firearms, eight luxury vehicles, three machines used to count money, police uniforms and GPS beacons were also seized today,” it reads.

The release does not say how exactly authorities managed to obtain Sky message content, but reads “The collaboration with the Netherlands made it possible to pool our experiences and expertise in the decryption of encrypted messages.”

Whereas law enforcement have previously obtained message content from similar companies either by hacking into users’ devices or leveraging an issue with how the messages were encrypted in the first place, Sky claims someone created a fake version of its messaging app, installed that onto phones, and then sold those phones through “unauthorized channels,” a representative for the company told Motherboard on Tuesday.

“SKY ECC authorized distributors in Belgium and the Netherlands brought to our attention that a fake phishing application falsely branded as SKY ECC was illegally created, modified and side-loaded onto unsecure devices, and security features of authorized SKY ECC phones were eliminated in these bogus devices which were then sold through unauthorized channels,” Sky told Motherboard in a statement. Motherboard has not been able to verify Sky’s claims.

In its statement, Sky added that it “firmly denies any allegation that it is the ‘platform of choice for criminals.’”

When asked about the police’s newly released and much larger figures, a Sky representative told Motherboard on Wednesday that “Those stated figures were already in consideration when we released our press release.”

Mexico and Central America: Still a Trampoline for South American / Columbian Drug Transports

Europol Press Release:


Judicial and law enforcement authorities in Belgium, France and the Netherlands have in close cooperation enabled major interventions to block the further use of encrypted communications by large-scale organised crime groups (OCGs), with the support of Europol and Eurojust. The continuous monitoring of the illegal Sky ECC communication service tool by investigators in the three countries involved has provided invaluable insights into hundreds of millions of messages exchanged between criminals. This has resulted in the collection of crucial information on over a hundred of planned large-scale criminal operations, preventing potential life threatening situations and possible victims.

During an action day on 9 March 2021, a large number of arrests were made, as well as numerous house searches and seizures in Belgium and the Netherlands.  The operation is an essential part of the continuous effort of judiciary and law enforcement in the EU and third countries to disrupt the illegal use of encrypted communications, as was already displayed last year following the successful de-encryption of the EncroChat communication platform. 

As of mid-February, authorities have been able to monitor the information flow of approximately 70 000 users of Sky ECC. Many users of EncroChat changed over to the popular Sky ECC platform, after EncroChat was unveiled in 2020. 

By successfully unlocking the encryption of Sky ECC, the information acquired will provide insights into criminal  activities in various EU Member States and beyond and will assist in expanding investigations and solving serious and cross-border organised crime for the coming months, possibly years.

Law enforcement in all three countries has been on a continuous stand by during the last month to be able to provide rapid reactions to possible dangerous criminal activities when required. The newly acquired information will now be analysed further

Investigations into the tool started in Belgium, after mobile phones seized during searches showed the use of Sky ECC  by suspects. Worldwide, approximately 170 000 individuals use the tool, which has its own infrastructure and applications and is operated from the United States and Canada, using computer servers based in  Europe. On a global scale, around three million messages are being exchanged each day via Sky ECC. Over 20 percent of the users are based in Belgium and the Netherlands. 

Europol has and will continue to provide the authorities of Belgium, Netherlands and other affected countries with tactical, technical and financial support and will be dealing with this important flow of information on criminal activities in order to prevent threats to life and major crimes.

Eurojust has provided advice and support regarding cross-border judicial cooperation and organised 12 coordination meetings to enable this collaboration. The Agency will continue to provide this support and stands ready for further advice and cross-border operational financial support to all Member States and countries involved, to ensure an adequate cross-border judicial cooperation.

The following authorities participated in the operation: 

Belgium: Federal Prosecutor’s Office, Public Prosecutor’s Office Antwerpen, Investigative Judge Office Mechelen, Federal Judicial Police, Federal Police and DSU Unit

France: National Jurisdiction against Organised Crime (JUNALCO), Central Directorate of the Judicial Police (DCPJ)

The Netherlands: National Public Prosecution Service, Public Prosecutor’s Office Amsterdam, National Police

Sources: APNews / Guardian / Vice / BrusselsTimes / Europol 


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