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'Top three Balkans drug kingpins' arrested after cops crack their Sky ECC chats

Maybe try carrier pigeons instead

European police arrested three people in Belgrade described as "the biggest" drug lords in the Balkans in what cops are chalking up to another win in dismantling Sky ECC's encrypted messaging app last year.

On May 11, law enforcement in Serbia and the Netherlands carried out coordinated raids on the cartel's alleged leaders and distribution infrastructure, according to Europol. During the swoop, officers arrested 13 suspects in Serbia, including the three alleged kingpins, searched 35 homes, and seized nearly €3 million ($3.26 million), 15 "high-end cars," jewelry, watches, and weapons.

The jewelry and watches are said to be worth about €2 million. And the weapons seized include two sniper rifles, three automatic rifles, silencers, 24 detonator capsules for explosives, five devices for remote initiation of detonators, 13 packages of plastic explosives, and "several hundred" pieces of ammunition, we're told.

Police had already arrested another 10 alleged members of the cartel in Belgium, Serbia, Peru, and the Netherlands, bringing the total arrests to 23. And all of these came about because of the Sky ECC takedown.

Not-so-secure app

Sky ECC was a subscription-based, end-to-end encrypted messaging app made by Sky Global and bundled on Google, Apple, Nokia, and BlackBerry handsets stripped of their GPS units, cameras, and microphones – the idea being that you could chat via text with other users without fear of being snooped on by the cops and others. That made it attractive for organized crime.

Back in March 2021, Sky Global closed up shop following raids in Belgium and the Netherlands on Sky ECC users and resellers. Also that month, American prosecutors indicted Sky Global chief exec Jean-Francois Eap for selling encrypted chat devices to drug dealers with the intent of helping them evade law enforcement. 

Shortly after those arrests, Belgian police said they had managed to "crack" Sky ECC's encryption, which allowed them to "monitor the information flow" of about 70,000 users of the messaging app. All that information, unlocked in the feds' hands, continues to fuel investigations, arrests, and prosecutions.

"Thanks to the analysis carried out on Sky ECC data, at least seven tonnes of cocaine seized in European ports in 2020 were traced back to this cartel," Europol claimed in a Friday announcement.

The three alleged kingpins cuffed in Belgrade this week were all identified via Sky ECC data, we're told.

Encrypted chats seized and searched

In announcing the most recent arrests, European cops also pointed to two other encrypted messaging services, EncroChat and ANOM, that were also infiltrated and shut down by police over the past few years. 

Like Sky ECC, these subscription-based communication apps were favored by criminals to hide their illegal operations from the law, and data from the trio of messaging services has been used as evidence to garner thousands of arrests.

"The recent takedown of three encrypted communication tools used by criminals — EncroChat, Sky ECC and Anom —  revealed the prevalence of Balkan criminals in the global cocaine trade and related organized crime activities," Europol said.

While the use of this data as evidence to arrest people has led to several legal challenges, so far the courts have repeatedly sided with the plod. 

On Thursday the UK's National Crime Agency partially won a legal battle in a case that challenged the warrants used to obtain EncroChat messages.

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

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