Iconic and previously “untouchable” criminal kingpins have been arrested in the “biggest and most significant” operation against serious and organised crime ever seen in the UK.
Weapons, including machine guns and hand grenades, tonnes of illegal drugs and tens of millions of pounds in cash were seized in raids around Britain that saw police make more than 740 arrests, including those of two law enforcement officers.
“This is just the beginning,” said Met Police Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick. “We will be disrupting organised criminal networks as a result of these operations for weeks and months and possibly years to come.”
Cops cracked criminals’ encrypted code
The swoop follows a major breakthrough for law enforcement agencies across Europe who cracked the encrypted code of a private messaging platform used almost exclusively by criminals.
Authorities have been mining messages hacked from the EncroChat network which provided gangsters with bespoke handsets and an encrypted messaging platform with assurances of absolute privacy.
It is believed more than 100 million messages – discussing the details of drug deals, assassination plots, kidnappings and revealing the structure and operations of serious and organised crime groups – were sent on EncroChat between April (when cyber experts in France managed to hack the network) and June.
10,000 EncroChat users in UK
There were more than 60,000 worldwide users of EncroChat – with an estimated 10,000 based in the UK – paying £1,500 per-month, per-handset, for unbreakable encryption, anonymous levels of privacy and various “device wipe” functions including the ability to delete content sent to another EncroChat phone, remotely.
Users believed their messages could not be intercepted and remained unaware the network had been hacked until EncroChat sent a warning in June, advising users to wipe and dispose of their devices. But by then it was far too late with police describing the quality of information and intelligence gathered in the preceding months as unprecedented.
“Entire organised crime groups have been dismantled during Operation Venetic with 746 arrests being made and £54m criminal cash, 77 firearms and over 2 tonnes of drugs seized so far,” tweeted the National Crime Agency (NCA).
‘Akin to cracking the Enigma Code’ – NCA
“The sole use of the platform was for coordinating and planning the distribution of illicit commodities, money laundering and plotting to kill rival criminals”, the NCA added in another tweet.
Nikki Holland, director of investigations at the NCA said her operational team describe the operation as “akin to cracking the Enigma Code”.
“They see this as that significant in terms of getting that inside information, having effectively a person in the middle of an organised crime group telling us what they’re up to.”
Holland told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme that Operation Venetic 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 added: “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.”
The NCA tweeted: “Any criminal who uses an encrypted phone should be very, very worried.”