Wave of arrests after breach of encrypted communication network

A breach of one of the world’s most secure communications networks has resulted in a number of people appearing in court in Northern Ireland, with dozens of other cases expected in the coming weeks.

Encrochat market encrypted handsets to security personnel around the globe. The technology is legal and was developed initially over privacy concerns.

However, it is alleged that the high degree of security makes the handsets, which sell for up to £3,500, attractive to organised crime networks.

Encrochat sent an urgent message last weekend to all users to destroy their handsets after a breach.

Within hours police on both sides of the border were engaged in search and arrest operations.

Encrochat cannot be used to make voice calls. It uses a wifi signal rather than mobile networks and users are limited to text or picture messages.

Last Saturday users received an urgent message saying security across Europe had been compromised for around 30 minutes.

The company said: “Due to the level of sophistication of the attack and the malware code, we can no longer guarantee the security of your device. We took immediate action on our network by disabling connectivity to combat the attack.

“You are advised to power off and physically dispose of your device immediately”.

Subsequently a number of people have appeared in court charged with offences alleged to be based on encrypted phone evidence.

Michael O’Loughlin appeared in Newry court sitting in Lisburn on Wednesday.

He faces two counts of conspiring with other people to commit murder, conspiring to possess firearms under suspicious circumstances, conspiring to make or supply a passport for a fraudulent purpose, conspiracy to rob, conspiracy to convert and transfer criminal property and a total of 11 drug offences.

An officer told the court the evidence against O’Loughlin “has been obtained by lawfully authorised clearance that has enabled access to his encrypted mobile phone content”.

He denies the charges.

Mr O’Loughlin’s lawyer, Ciaran Shiels of Madden & Finucane, said: “The concerning feature here is the absolute dearth of press reporting and media attention in respect of a massive wholesale breach of an encrypted communication platform.

“It appears that as many as 50 per cent of users have had their communications intercepted.

“It is inconceivable that all of these communications that have been concerning the preparation, instigation. or commission of crime.

“For this reason it is now incumbent on the National Crime Agency and the police to provide clarity on the lawful basis used to legally breach this network and seize this information as potential evidential product.”

A spokesperson for the National Crime Agency said: “We are aware of reports relating to law enforcement action taken against Encrochat, however we do not routinely confirm or deny the NCA’s involvement in investigations.”

Irish News