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The US Department of Justice has indicted the CEO of encrypted messaging company Sky Global, and an associate for allegedly aiding criminal enterprises avoid detection by law enforcement.
Sky Global is the developer of an encrypted chat app known as Sky ECC that claims to be the "most secure messaging app available anywhere in the world today."
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Sky Global is a communications network and service provider based in Vancouver, Canada. Its most notable products were the secure messaging application Sky ECC and secure phones. A significant share of users of its systems were international crime organizations involved in drug trafficking, and the company management was suspected of collusion. In a series of raids against criminal organizations in several countries in early 2021, a part of Sky's infrastructure in Western Europe was dismantled, and the US Department of Justice issued an arrest warrant against the company's CEO Jean-François Eap. On March 19, 2021, the company apparently shut down the operations after BlackBerry, Inc. cut it off from its services. Its website has been seized by the FBI.
Sky ECC is a subscription-based end-to-end encrypted messaging application. Originally developed for the BlackBerry platform, it uses elliptic-curve cryptography (ECC) for encryption. One of its features was the "self-destruction" of messages after a user-defined expiration period.
The company modified Nokia, Google, Apple, and BlackBerry phones, Phones supplied by the company had cameras, microphones, and GPS disabled. Messages were encrypted and were automatically deleted after thirty seconds. If a phone was not contactable by the network, the message would be retained for up to 48 hours, then deleted.
If a user entered a "panic" password, the device would delete its contents. The company website offered a $4 million USD (€4.2 million Euro) prize to anyone who could break the encryption within 90 days. They support Android, BlackBerry, and iPhone apps.
Messages are stored using 521-bit elliptic-curve cryptography and network connections are protected by 2048 bit SSL.
On 9 March 2021 around 1600 Belgian police carried out about 200 raids and arrested 48 people and seized €1.2 million in cash as well as 17 tonnes of cocaine. Those arrested included lawyers and members of the Hells Angels.
Federal prosecutor Frédéric Van Leeuw said that "The operation was concentrated on taking down the Sky ECC infrastructure, dismantling the distribution network and seizing the criminal assets of the distributors" and "as many Sky ECC devices as possible" were seized from identified users. The federal prosecutor said about the encryption that "We succeeded. We will send Sky ECC the account number of the federal police".
Belgian and Dutch authorities were alleged to have been able to access the network from 15 February 2021 up to shortly before the raids.
Raids in the Netherlands were part of Operation Argus, the follow-up to the Lermont operation used to take down Encrochat.
Sky Global disputed claims that their servers and app had been compromised, claiming that they were aware of a fake "Sky ECC" app being available on unsecured phones.
Sky Global said they were "actively investigating and pursuing legal action against the offending individuals for impersonation, false lights, trademark infringement, injurious falsehood, defamation, and fraud".
Indictment and shutdown
On March 12, 2021, the US Department of Justice in San Diego, California, issued an indictment against Sky Global's CEO, Jean-Francois Eap, and a former distributor, Thomas Herdman. They were charged with a "conspiracy to violate the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO)", and arrest warrants were issued. The indictment states that Sky Global's devices are "specifically designed to prevent law enforcement from actively monitoring the communications between members of transnational criminal organizations involved in drug trafficking and money laundering. As part of its services, Sky Global guarantees that messages stored on its devices can and will be remotely deleted by the company if the device is seized by law enforcement or otherwise compromised."
In response, Eap has published a statement branding the allegations as false, saying that he and his company are being "targeted" because they "build tools to protect the fundamental right to privacy." "Sky Global's technology works for the good of all. It was not created to prevent the police from monitoring criminal organizations; it exists to prevent anyone from monitoring and spying on the global community. The indictment against me personally in the US is an example of the police and the government trying to vilify anyone who takes a stance against unwarranted surveillance."
On March 19, 2021, the company apparently shut down the operations after BlackBerry cut it off from its United Endpoint Manager services. Its website has been seized by the FBI.