Decrypted Messages Lead to Seizure of 27 Tons of Cocaine in Europe

Belgian authorities announced on Monday that they had seized 27.64 tons of cocaine with a street value of 1.4 billion euros ($1.7 billion) in the industrial port of Antwerp over the past two months, with a record 11 tons discovered Friday night alone. In addition, an employee of a port company and an employee of the city of Antwerp have also been arrested.

Authorities attributed the seizures to the alleged decryption of half a billion messages sent using Sky ECC—a now shut down encrypted phone company and network popular among drug traffickers—in early March. Belgian and Dutch authorities pointed to the decrypted messages as the catalyst for the subsequent arrests of 48 people in Belgium and 73 in the Netherlands supposedly connected to the drug trade.

After the arrests, Sky ECC disputed that their service had actually been hacked or cracked, instead claiming that a fake version of the app had been illegally distributed and subsequently used to phish users.

Both Antwerp and the Dutch port of Rotterdam are considered key nodes of the global drug network according to a report from the European Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, where drugs like cocaine but also more recently methamphetamine are smuggled in via large container ships. The same report also claims that only 50,000 of the 11 million containers that enter Rotterdam are actually checked, meaning that without a point in the right direction, authorities are essentially searching for a needle in a haystack when it comes to finding drugs.

“The cocaine seizures are a direct result of the decryption of those encrypted messages on the cracked phones,” Kristof Aerts, an employee of Antwerp’s public prosecution office, told Belgian national broadcaster VRT. “It will take time to further analyze the information we decrypt and start using it. This operation may not immediately end drug trafficking in Antwerp.”

“Other means of communication will emerge that criminals will use,” Aerts continued. “We will have to stay alert.” 

The move comes in the wake of the recent infiltration of Encrochat, another popular encrypted phone network commonly used by the criminal underground, by European authorities in the spring of last year—a substantial blow to Europe’s illicit drug operations. That too led to at least 800 arrests across the continent and the seizure of tons of drugs.

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