Pseudonyms, code words for the handover, photos of drugs or weapons – criminals believed they were safe when communicating with encrypted crypto mobile phones. About two years ago, however, European investigators managed to crack the data from the provider Encrochat. Since then, the police and judiciary have been wrestling with a flood of data nationwide: According to the public prosecutor’s office, there are around 1.6 million chat messages and almost 750 users in Berlin alone. “A disproportionately large number of Encrochat users come from Berlin, at around 15 percent,” says senior public prosecutor Thorsten Cloidt, head of a department for organized crime.
In 40 cases, the Berlin public prosecutor’s office has so far brought charges, many of which are now being heard at the regional court. According to the authorities, more than 100 other procedures with at least one identified suspect are pending, and in a further nine cases the perpetrator still has to be determined. In Hamburg, too, such trials are now part of everyday life, with two trials involving the smuggling of several tons of cocaine.
“The majority of the suspects in the proceedings are people that we hadn’t yet figured out,” says prosecutor Cloidt, who has long been responsible for clan and biker crime in the capital. There is less reference to clan crime, rockers are more often affected. It’s mostly about drug dealing. What is striking is the high frequency of the crimes, less the amounts of the drug. “People were obviously certain that the data couldn’t be decrypted,” Cloidt said.
“The system was intended for criminals,” says his colleague Reiner Pützhoven. The senior public prosecutor heads the specialist department that was set up at the Berlin public prosecutor’s office at the beginning of the year to deal with the flood of data. In the spring of 2020, the police in the Netherlands and France cracked the Encrochat software and siphoned off a total of more than 20 million secret chat messages for a few months. In the meantime, the Federal Court of Justice (BGH) has decided that these may be used in Germany when it comes to solving serious crimes.
The data is a “real gold mine” as a starting point for various investigations, says the Berlin state spokesman for the police union (GdP), Benjamin Jendro. “Rarely before have we had to deal with such open communication between small and large fish from organized crime, so that an open investigation quickly becomes a sting in the wasp’s nest and we have problems cultivating everything in the given time.”
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Investigators and the judiciary agree: Because of the many procedures and the large amounts of data, the development is both a blessing and a curse. Because the investigations must be carried out quickly because the suspects are in custody, which is only possible for a limited time. Nationwide, the police and judiciary have reacted and set up special departments and increased staff. According to the German Association of Judges, 28 new positions for judges, public prosecutors and service staff were created in Hamburg for a limited period of time.
“Crypto cell phones will keep us busy for the next few years,” Cloidt is convinced. The next tricky procedures are already rolling towards the investigators: In the spring there were initial reports that the EU police authority Europol had cracked the encryption of the Sky ECC communications system at the end of 2020 and had secured many millions of chat messages from users from all over the world. The database is said to be up to four times larger than that of Encrochat.
Because of their ports, Hamburg and Bremen are among the main hubs for drug crime, along with Berlin. According to a survey by the judges’ association, more than 200 encrochat procedures were already being processed by the public prosecutor’s office in Hamburg last November, and there were almost 150 in Bremen. There are also hundreds of cases of suspected organized drug crime in North Rhine-Westphalia, with a focus on more than 300 cases in Dortmund. In more than 1,000 cases, the accused were in custody, it said, with reference to information from the Federal Criminal Police Office.
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The first convictions based on secured Encrochat data have now been made in Schleswig-Holstein, for example, where the Kiel Regional Court recently imposed prison sentences of between four and a half and almost seven years on three men, according to the State Criminal Police Office. In North Rhine-Westphalia, sentences of seven and eight years in prison for drug trafficking are final, as the Ministry of Justice in Düsseldorf announced.