Hundreds of Britain’s most dangerous drug dealers, gangsters and gun runners have been arrested after EncroChat, a private messaging platform used by criminals to communicate, was secretly penetrated by law enforcement agencies.
In what is being heralded by the National Crime Agency (NCA) as one of the biggest ever blows to serious organised crime, entire underworld networks have been dismantled and vital evidence gathered against previously untouchable kingpin figures.
More than 740 suspects have been arrested, millions of pounds in illicit cash, tonnes of class A drugs and vast caches of deadly firearms have been seized, during two months of operations by police forces across the UK.
Similar operations have also taken place in countries across Europe and further afield.
EncroChat has operated in the shadows for a number a years, offering some of the most high profile and dangerous gangsters the opportunity to message one another on an encrypted platform they believed was absolutely watertight.
But in April, cyber specialists based in France, finally managed to compromise the system and began monitoring the activities of organised crime groups across Europe.
EncroChat has an estimated 10,000 users in the UK and 60,000 worldwide and police insist all are involved in some form of criminality.
The handsets cost around £3,000 a year and have no legitimate use, according to experts, although owning one is not an offence in itself.
Police said because the criminals were unaware they were being spied on, the quality of information and intelligence they were able to gather was unprecedented.
NCA Director of Investigations Nikki Holland said: “This is the biggest and most significant law enforcement operation of its kind in the UK and it is previously unmatched in terms of its scale.”
She went on: “By monitoring thousands of handsets and analysing millions of messages we have already mitigated threats to life including conspiracy to murder we have protected the public by taking dangerous firearms and drugs off the streets and we have seized millions of pounds in criminal cash and assets.”
Many of those who were using the platform to conduct their illegal business were people the police had been hunting for years but who operated at such a high level they were considered to be untouchable.
But within days of EncroChat being compromised, police forces across the UK and further afield had begun kicking down doors and arresting the “Mr Bigs”. of the underworld.
The NCA likened the hacking operation to "having an inside man in every organised crime group in the UK".
Police forces throughout the UK have seized over £54million in cash; 77 firearms, including an AK47 assault rifle, sub machine guns, handguns, four grenades, and over 1,800 rounds of ammunition; more than two tonnes of Class A and B drugs; 55 high value cars, and 73 luxury watches.
In London, Scotland Yard officers were able to prevent a gangland murder taking place when they intercepted messages between criminals ordering a hit on a rival.
Elsewhere a top tier underworld figure was arrested at his gated mansion in the Home Counties by armed officers from the Counter Terrorism unit.
Sources said on the surface the man had appeared to be a respectable member of the wealthy local community but is now in custody suspected of serious organised crime offences.
During one raid police found £5 million in cash, the biggest single seizure of money in the Met's history.
Dame Cressida Dick, the Met Commissioner, said: "This operation is the most significant activity, certainly in my career, we have ever carried out against serious and organised criminality across London.
“Organised crime groups have used encrypted communications to enable their offending. They have openly discussed plots to murder, launder money, deal drugs and sell firearms capable of causing atrocious scenes in our communities. They were brazen and thought they were beyond the reach of the law."
The operation has also identified a number of corrupt law enforcement officials, the NCA revealed.
It was not until the middle of June that EncroChat operators, who are based in France, became aware of the fact they had been compromised and sent a warning message out to users to destroy their devices.
Ms Holland said: “We have dismantled well established organised crime groups and have already secured evidence to prosecute a significant number of known criminals who have previously remained behind out reach up until now.
“This will have a lasting and detrimental effect on the criminal underworld that has become reliant on encrypted communication to go about their illicit business."
She added: "If you have one of these devices be very worried because we are probably coming for you."
NCA Deputy Director, Matt Horne added: “I assess this is the largest ever disruptive impact against organised crime gangs operating at a high level involved in drug importation drug trafficking firearm importation and trafficking and money laundering that impact on the UK.”
Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, said: “This operation demonstrates that criminals will not get away with using encrypted devices to plot vile crimes under the radar.
“The NCA’s relentless targeting of these gangs has helped to keep us all safe. I congratulate them and law enforcement partners on this significant achievement.
“I will continue working closely with the NCA and others to tackle the use of such devices – giving them the resources, powers and tools they need to keep our country safe.”