EXCLUSIVE: NCA refuses to say if it's involved in Sky ECC encryption probe as FBI seizes its website


The National Crime Agency (NCA) has refused to confirm if it is involved in the European hack into the Sky ECC encrypted mobile phone system, in the same way it was with the operation against Encrochat.

However, it said it was aware of the operation and Europe and added that tacking the "criminal use of encrypted communications" was a priority for the agency and its partners. After Belgian Police revealed last week that a number of drug supply arrests were the result of law enforcement cracking the encryption of the Sky ECC service, Essex News and Investigations asked the NCA if it was also involved in the operation and if we should expect to see arrests over here off the back of it. In April Dutch and French investigators broke through the encryption of the supposedly secure Encrochat encrypted phone communication platform which was being used by around 50,000 people worldwide, including about 9,000 in the UK. They allowed police forces across Europe, including in the UK, access to previously sent and new "real time" messaging between suspected organised crime groups. It led to hundreds of raids, arrests and seizures of drugs, cash and firearms across the UK in a series of unconnected operations. Encrochat shut itself down when it discovered the hack in June.

The NCA was very vocal over its involvement in the Encrochat operation, with a series of press releases last July, which said it was like having informants in most top crime groups in the country. The agency even released messages from Encrochat users who appeared to fear they were facing arrest with the agency bragging that criminals were running scared. However, if it has been allowed access to messages of UK Sky ECC users, the agency is keeping it close to its chest. An NCA spokesman would not confirm the agency was directly involved in the Sky ECC operation. He said: “The NCA is aware of action taken by international partners against Sky ECC. "Tackling the criminal use of encrypted communication is a priority for the agency and its partners in the fight against serious and organised crime.” Asked directly if the NCA was involved, he said: "The NCA does not routinely confirm or deny the existence of investigations.”

Of the more than 1,000 people arrested as part of the wider operation, many were not found in possession of Encrochat devices, meaning several of the prosecutions, are based on remotely-obtained message evidence alone. During Operation Venetic, the NCA arm of the Encrochat investigation, it is thought only a few hundred Encrochat devices were found in the UK. The bulk of the arrests have been for drugs, firearms and money laundering, with some for conspiracy to murder.

A number of defendants charged under Operation Venetic are questioning the validity of Encrochat message evidence and the operation in a series of crown court preparatory hearings which have been merged into one case underway this week. During the cases, that cannot be identified, the NCA has been asked by defence lawyers to disclose any evidence the NCA has about the Sky ECC operation.

At a hearing today, the agency did not confirm any involvement.

The cases were adjourned until tomorrow.

Sky ECC had boasted that its encryption could not be breached in the same way as the Encrochat system.

But at a press conference last week Dutch and Belgian investigators said investigators had hacked into the Sky ECC system at the end of last year, with half of more than a billion messages decrypted.

Sky ECC, which denies being set up to appeal to criminals, denied any of its users had been hacked, instead claiming in a statement on its website a fake version of its app had been created and new users of that, who thought they were on Sky ECC, had been monitored.

However, on March 12 it emerged the Sky ECC probe is global after US prosecutors issued arrest warrants for two executives of Canadian-based Sky Global, which ran the network.

A federal grand jury in the US indicted Sky Global’s Canadian CEO, Jean-François Eap, and former phone distributor Thomas Herman, for racketeering and knowingly facilitating the import and distribution of illegal drugs through the sale of encrypted communications devices. If accessed, the Sky ECC website now gives a message from the FBI saying it has been "seized."