Phone in­ter­cep­tions will en­hance work of Garda

De­cryp­tion is ‘like hav­ing an in­side per­son in ev­ery top crime group’

The Irish Times - - Home News - Conor Gal­lagher

In the past decade, law en­force­ment has been en­gaged in a tech­no­log­i­cal arms race with crim­i­nal gangs con­stantly try­ing to find ways of com­mu­ni­cat­ing with­out be­ing spied on.

Ir­ish gangland crim­i­nals, in­clud­ing the now Dubai-based Ki­na­han gang, have in the past pri­mar­ily re­lied upon PGP (Pretty Good Pri­vacy) phones to do busi­ness.

These de­vices, es­sen­tially heav­ily mod­i­fied Black­berry phones, are al­most im­pos­si­ble to break into with­out the proper code. As an added layer of se­cu­rity, the Ki­na­hans were known to dis­trib­ute new PGP phones, which cost about ¤1,500 each, to se­nior gang mem­bers ev­ery few weeks.

The de­vices proved so hard to crack that se­nior gar­daí called for the in­tro­duc­tion of new laws al­low­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tors to de­mand pass­codes from sus­pects on ar­rest.

As far as these de­vices are con­cerned, the only ma­jor in­tel­li­gence vic­tory recorded by gar­daí was when one quick­think­ing of­fi­cer used his own phone to pho­to­graph a mes­sage on the PGP de­vice of Imre Arakas im­me­di­ately after the hit­man’s ar­rest in 2017. Sec­onds later the mes­sage was re­motely deleted, pre­sum­ably by the per­son is­su­ing or­ders to the Es­to­nian to mur­der James “Mago” Gately.

French po­lice

Other than these rare in­tel­li­gence coups, en­crypted de­vices largely re­mained a black box for law en­force­ment agen­cies. How­ever, a so­phis­ti­cated op­er­a­tion led by French po­lice, and re­vealed this week, has changed that dy­namic.

The op­er­a­tion tar­geted En­crochat, a ser­vice which shares many of the same features as PGP but was viewed, un­til last month at least, as sig­nif­i­cantly more se­cure.

The phones, cost­ing about ¤1,000 each, are An­droid de­vices, with the cam­era, mi­cro­phone and GPS re­moved. Users must sign up for the se­cure meat a cost of ¤1,500 ev­ery six months.

The de­vices can send only text and im­ages, not calls. Such was the per­ceived im­pen­e­tra­bil­ity of the ser­vice, crim­i­nals used it with im­punity to plan mur­ders, send pho­to­graphs of weapons con­sign­ments and ne­go­ti­ate large drug deals. French po­lice es­ti­mated up to 90 per cent of the 60,000 users were crim­i­nals.

Then, in the mid­dle of the pan­demic, gangs started to no­tice more drug ship­ments than usual be­ing seized and that their mem­bers were be­ing ar­rested in­creas­ingly reg­u­larly.

In the Nether­lands, po­lice ar­rested 100 sus­pects, seized 8,000kg of co­caine and dozens of au­to­matic weapons and shut 19 syn­thetic drug labs.

In the UK, the Na­tional Crime Agency (NCA) ar­rested 746 peo­ple and stopped 200 planned mur­ders.

These de­vel­op­ments can all be traced to a French-led op­er­a­tion to in­fil­trate and dis­man­tle En­crochat us­ing tech­nol­ogy never pre­vi­ously em­ployed. The French used En­crochat’s own net­work to up­load a mal­ware virus which in­ter­cepted and read the mes­sages on the de­vice be­fore they could be en­crypted and trans­mit­ted.

The in­fil­tra­tion be­gan as far back as April, mean­ing mil­lions of mes­sages were in­ter­cepted. These were then fil­tered by the French and Dutch au­thor­i­ties and shared with po­lice agen­cies across the EU.

The in­ter­cep­tions came to an end in mid-June when En­crochat re­alised its se­cu­rity had been breached.

It is dif­fi­cult to over­state the im­pact of the in­fil­tra­tion.

“It was as though we were sit­ting at the ta­ble where crim­i­nals were chat­ting among them­selves,” said Dutch po­lice chief Jan­nine van den Berg.

A se­nior NCA of­fi­cial com­pared it to “hav­ing an in­side per­son in ev­ery top or­gan­ised crime group in the coun­try”, adding that it was the “broad­est and deep­est-ever UK op­er­a­tion into se­ri­ous or­gan­ised crime”. In the UK, it has led to the ar­rests of po­lice of­fi­cers and of­fi­cials, and seem­ingly le­git­i­mate busi­ness­men.

The op­er­a­tion raises ques­tions for pri­vacy and civil lib­er­ties cam­paign­ers. En­crochat is a le­gal ser­vice and it is not a crime to own a de­vice. The French say the seem­ingly in­dis­crim­i­nate na­ture of the in­ter­cep­tions are le­gal un­der

French law but this will surely be tested once cases start com­ing to trial.Au­thor­i­ties are still sift­ing through the data trove and many more op­er­a­tions are likely in the pipe­line.

How­ever, its im­pact on or­gan­ised crime op­er­a­tions in Ire­land re­mains to be seen. This week the Garda de­clined to an­swer ques­tions, as did Europol, the agency that helped co-or­di­nate the op­er­a­tion. Se­nior gar­daí have pri­vately briefed that no ar­rests are ex­pected in the im­me­di­ate fu­ture on foot of the in­fil­tra­tion.

There has been an un­mis­tak­able rise in sig­nif­i­cant ar­rests and drugs seizures by gar­daí in re­cent weeks.

If En­crochat was the source for some of these it would not be sur­pris­ing if gar­daí wanted to keep that fact quiet.

Gang dis­man­tling

‘‘ In­fil­tra­tion in the UK has led to the ar­rests of po­lice and of­fi­cials

It is also tempt­ing to spec­u­late that En­crochat was on the mind of As­sis­tant Garda Com­mis­sioner John O’Driscoll on Mon­day when he promised op­er­a­tions were in train to dis­man­tle the Ki­na­han gang.

There have al­ready been ar­rests north of the Bor­der as a re­sult of the breach where five peo­ple are in cus­tody fac­ing a to­tal of 44 charges, in­clud­ing con­spir­acy to mur­der.

In­for­ma­tion is be­ing shared with the Garda. It is fair to say that, given the use of En­crochat by Ir­ish crim­i­nals and the in­ter­con­nected na­ture of mod­ern or­gan­ised crime, some of it is sure to prove use­ful.

In re­cent years, Garda units, in­clud­ing the Spe­cial De­tec­tive Unit, the Drugs and Or­gan­ised Crime Bureau and the Na­tional Sur­veil­lance Unit, have qui­etly up­graded tech­nol­ogy.

Most of this re­mains a closely guarded se­cret, but some fruits have been seen, in­clud­ing the con­vic­tion of nine men for plan­ning the mur­der of Pa­trick Patsy Hutch in 2018, which de­pended heav­ily on elec­tronic sur­veil­lance.

Given the rel­a­tively small size of the or­gan­i­sa­tion, some­thing like the En­crochat op­er­a­tion re­mains out­side the Garda’s abil­i­ties, though there are ef­forts to bridge the gap.

Ac­cord­ing to a ten­der­ing doc­u­ment, the Garda Cy­ber Crime Bureau is seek­ing to spend about half a mil­lion euro on a “de­cryp­tion suite” which will be used to break into “elec­tronic de­vices, mo­bile phones and elec­tronic files”.

Un­til now the bureau has mainly re­lied on off-the-shelf de­cryp­tion tech­nol­ogy to break into seized de­vices and ex­tract ev­i­dence. “It is now con­sid­ered a strate­gic im­per­a­tive within this bureau that a ro­bust de­cryp­tion so­lu­tion is avail­able within the foren­sic process,” the doc­u­ment states.

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