European cops collected data from encrypted chat service for weeks prior to cocaine bust

Sky CC appears to be the latest encrypted service to be compromised by European authorities.
Illustration picture shows a container terminal in the Antwerp harbour, Friday 06 March 2020. BELGA PHOTO DIRK WAEM (Photo by DIRK WAEM/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images)

Breached encrypted messaging tools increasingly seem to provide European law enforcement agencies with a kind of roadmap to high profile drug busts. 

Belgium’s Federal Police force on Monday said they had seized nearly 28 tons of cocaine with a street value of 1.4 billion euros ($1.65 billion) after officials accessed an encrypted messaging service, as CNN first reported. The activity came after police said in March they had decrypted half a billion messages sent via the Sky ECC service, and arrested 48 people. The cocaine seizure appears to be the result of that initial investigation, as officials say they spent weeks tracking messages and gathering information about cocaine shipments before intercepting packages at the port of Antwerp. 

It was only the latest example of European police accessing hard-to-crack technology to collect evidence about suspected criminals, though. 

Dutch police working with French officials last year broke into another messaging service, EncroChat, which the U.K.’s National Crime agency said functioned as a “criminal marketplace” for 60,000 people who allegedly sold narcotics, laundering money and engaging in murder-for-hire conspiracies. 


Meanwhile, international police are mining information from CyberBunker, a shuttered hosting service that operated out of former military bunkers, to investigate sales of drugs and hacking tools. 

The rise of EncroChat and Sky ECC, the latter of which the U.S. government suggested had 70,000 active users around the world, coincided with the shutdown of Phantom Secure, a tool that the FBI described as a “criminal enterprise” designed to shield drug traffickers’ communications from police. Sky, in particular, operated as part of a larger industry in which sellers customized phones to remove their microphones and location services to help avoid detection, as Motherboard reported in March. 

Exactly how police breached encryption protocols to gather evidence from the apps remains unclear. In March, the chat service refuted the notion that police had accessed any communications, suggesting officials had deployed a malicious application that masqueraded as Sky ECC in order to trick users and then gather their information. Authorities declined to address the claims at the time.

Sky, though, has been the subject of ongoing attention from international police, and its chief executive is under indictment in the U.S. for allegedly participating in a criminal scheme to distribute narcotics “through the sale and service or encrypted communications devices.” Neither CEO Jean-Francois Eap nor Thomas Herdman, whom the Justice Department said worked as a distributor of Sky devices, are known to be in U.S. custody.

Jeff Stone

Written by Jeff Stone

Jeff Stone is the editor-in-chief of CyberScoop, with a special interest in cybercrime, disinformation and the U.S. justice system. He previously worked as an editor at the Wall Street Journal, and covered technology policy for sites including the Christian Science Monitor and the International Business Times.

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