Prosecution witnesses in Encrochat case told not to discuss Sky ECC hack as its 'too sensitive'


PROSECUTION witnesses in an ongoing crown court case concerning several Encrochat prosecutions have been told not to answer questions about the separate Sky ECC hack.

The preparatory hearing, which cannot be identified, is looking at issues around evidence obtained by the National Crime Agency (NCA) from the encrypted Encrochat mobile phone system after it was hacked into by French and Dutch law enforcement cyber experts last spring.

But, a week before the case got underway, police in Belgium revealed they had also obtained messages from the separate Sky ECC encrypted phones network.

Earlier in the week defence lawyers asked the court to get the NCA to disclose any information it held about the Sky ECC operation.

However, no documents have been disclosed, and on Wednesday a prosecution lawyer said witnesses could not answer questions about Sky ECC, "as it involves sensitive matters."

The judge asked that this be put in writing.

It was said while the defence was questioning a security services cyber expert from GCHQ's National Technical Assistance Centre, a unit responsible for the provision of Lawful Interception capability, recovering data from seized media, and offering technical advice to government and industry on interception and data recovery.

The expert had been answering general questions about the encryption of various encrypted platforms, including Whatsapp, Signal, Encrochat and Sky ECC.

But, the prosecution stepped in when he was asked about any tie up between the NCA and Belgian police on its Sky ECC operation.

The expert had said there was close cooperation with the Belgian authorities, but "not" on the Sky ECC job.

The defence counsel asked if there had been any "informal liaison".

But the prosecution barrister said: "My Lord, the witness cannot answer and we’re straying into sensitive areas."

The expert did respond that he was not aware of any informal contact.

The case was dogged by delays this week, blamed on "technical issues" with the remote link to view proceedings online, with some journalists and members of the public unable to log on at times.

The case was adjourned until later this month.

The level of secrecy surrounding any NCA involvement in the Sky ECC hack will fuel suspicions that it may have been involved.

Earlier this week the agency refused to deny if it had any involvement with it when asked by Essex News and Investigations.

NO COMMENT: The NCA, run by Lynne Owens (above), does not want to say if it is involved in Sky ECC hack (NCA)

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. Several prosecutions are now underway, including those involved in the preparatory hearing.

Many messages involve "message only" evidence, but others have involved drugs, cash and firearms seizures backed up by messages..

In other cases defendants have gone guilty with several jailed.

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."