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UK cops score legal win in EncroChat snooping op

But tribunal punts on whether data was intercepted in transit

The UK's National Crime Agency has partially won an important legal battle in a case that challenged the warrants used to obtain messages from cyber crook hangout EncroChat.

EncroChat offered an encrypted phone and mobile service for just $1,500 a month – and you thought your mobile bill was bad – which was chiefly used by criminals to organize their schemes and scams out of reach of the cops. The service was busted in an international operation in 2022. This led to arrests, and the seizure of drugs, guns, and tens of millions of quid in cash. There were over 60,000 accounts to look through, too.

In a decision issued Thursday, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal ruled that the National Crime Agency (NCA) "did not fail in any material respect in fulfilling the duty of candour" when it obtained a targeted equipment interference (TEI) warrant allowing the plod to access tons of private messages stored on EncroChat devices.

These communications were eventually used as evidence to arrest nearly 3,000 people in Britain.

The tribunal also said the NCA was not legally required to obtain a bulk equipment interference warrant to obtain the EncroChat messages lawfully.

However, while the TEI warrant allowed the cops to collect communications stored on a device – and thus, according to the tribunal, was obtained legally – there's a different type of warrant that UK authorities must obtain to intercept messages in transit. 

The tribunal said it didn't reach a determination about whether the NCA illegally intercepted communications while they were being transmitted, and decided to "defer further consideration of this chapter of the case" until after the Crown Court's criminal proceedings in a related EncroChat case have wrapped.

"It is clear that a TEI warrant cannot authorise conduct in relation to communications other than stored communications," the decision stated. "It will be necessary to determine whether the interception was of communications in the course of their transmission."

EncroChat hack

This, and other similar legal challenges, date back to 2020, when the NCA learned that French and Dutch police compromised EncroChat's servers and used that access to deploy malware to all EncroChat handsets. That in turn allowed the cops to receive cleartext copies of users' messages in real time. 

Upon learning about their European counterparts' efforts to spy on the alleged gangsters, the NCA wanted in, and so they obtained a warrant to access the messages between criminals.

The law enforcement agencies ultimately used information gleaned from the chats to make tens of thousands of arrests amid failed court challenges over the legality of that evidence.

In Britain alone, the NCA had arrested 2,864 people as of June 2022 directly because of the EncroChat surveillance.

Just yesterday, a man described as the "kingpin" of an organized crime group that controlled "one of the largest amphetamine laboratories ever found in the UK," was jailed as a result of data obtained from EncroChat.

John Keet, 42, of Chalfont St Giles in Buckinghamshire, was sent down for 18 years after he pleaded guilty to drug-related charges.

"National Crime Agency investigators identified encrypted messaging platform EncroChat was being used to run the lab near Redditch – capable of producing 400 kilos of amphetamine per month, worth £2 million at wholesale and up to £10 million at street level," the police said. ®

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