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  • Writer's pictureThe DigitalBank Vault

The fall of #EncroChat and the future for criminal communications



For several years, EncroChat devices have appeared in the possessions of mafia members, replacing the old Blackberry handsets which were known to be relatively easy to extract data from, and proved impossible to crack.


A few very lucky investigators managed to get their hands on unlocked handsets running the hidden O/S and got screenshots of messages, and one or two saw photographs of them sent via WhatsApp and other messaging systems on unmodified phones, but on the whole every single one of these handsets has kept its secrets.


The compromise, and subsequent take-down, of the network follows a fairly familiar patterns. It seems that law-enforcement agencies managed to gain access to the update server for the handsets, and to the source code for a release of the modified O/S.


By modifying and building their own release, they were able to get the handsets to disclose data stored on them through a channel back to the agency. It's not clear if this was via the Encro servers, or if some other network was involved. As a result, though, packages of data containing messages from the handsets themselves are now being distributed to other law-enforcement agencies and we can expect to see more detailed evidence being given in future.


The attraction of private networks and strong encryption, from a selling point of view, is that they are private, and thus its easier to detect attempts to compromise them. From an investigative perspective, though, they stand out a something out of the ordinary and which needs an explanation for use. More mainstream messaging apps., although less likely to arouse suspicion, suffer from a lack of trust.


No matter how secure they are, there is a concern that data held on the handset, or in the cloud, may be obtained by law-enforcement agents, and that the service provider may be forced to co-operate with investigators in some way.


From this author's perspective, we can probably expect to see the following happening:


1) an Encro replacement will appear, claiming to have solved the problems that Encro had. It will eventually fall through a compromise of some description in its push-update system. (Since Encro was closed, one competitor, which follows this pattern, already seems to have a growing presence in criminal cases)


2) another competitor, which closes the push-update backdoor will appear. The only way to upgrade software will be to buy a device from the service provider.


3) There will be a migration to use of standard, although perhaps less-commonly used, messaging apps. downloaded from app. stores or installed via "rooting" methods.


There may also, be a migration away from encrypted communications to one which uses more steganographic methods - such as posting photographs on social media. The meaning may be determined by a "code book" which needs to be distributed to members of the network, reintroducing the key distribution, storage and access problems, or it may rely on digital steganography with messages embedded into the uploaded files, relying on the social media platforms not re-encoding or stripping any data from uploaded files.


 

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