Secure Comms: Cracking the Encrypted Messages of Balkan Crime Gangs

Sky ECC described itself as “a global leader in secure messaging technology”, helping to keep a host of industries safe from identity theft and hacking. Law enforcement authorities in the United States and Europe, however, say it was created with the sole purpose of facilitating drug trafficking and had become the messaging app of choice for transnational crime organisations. Using equipment that President Aleksandar Vucic said Serbia had “borrowed from friends”, police managed to access the app. What they found was gruesome, and damning – photos of two dead men, one of them decapitated.
Led by Veljko Belivuk, the gang – part of a group of violent football fans – is suspected of drug trafficking, murder and illegal weapons possession. Belivuk and his associates, who remain in custody but have not yet been charged, allegedly used the app to organise criminal activities, and to brag about their exploits. In this, they were not alone. On March 9, three days after Vucic displayed the photos, police in Belgium and the Netherlands made what Europol described the next day as a large number of arrests after secretly infiltrating the communications of some 70,000 Sky ECC devices and, from mid-February, reading them ‘live’.
On March 12, US authorities indicted Jean-Francois Eap, chief executive officer of Sky Global, the company behind Sky ECC, and Thomas Herdman, a former high-level distributor of Sky Global devices, accusing them of conspiracy to violate the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, RICO. Eap issued a statement denying any wrongdoing. Critics of the government under Vucic say Belivuk had long acted with impunity, protected by reported ties to a number of senior governing officials. Serbia boasted of a “war” on organised crime. But the timing of Belivuk’s arrest and the operation against Sky ECC raises fresh questions about what preceded the Serbian police swoop – whether Serbia acted alone, or was prompted to do so by evidence unearthed elsewhere.
Either way, the downfall of Belivuk and Sky ECC has shed new light on the lengths Balkan crime gangs have gone to evade surveillance, and the challenge facing authorities to strike back. It has also fuelled talk of the need to criminalise such software, raising alarm among some who say this would punish legitimate users, from political dissidents to investigative journalists. The Serbian Interior Ministry and Security Intelligence Agency, BIA, did not respond to requests for comment. “Organised crime groups from the Balkans have adapted quickly and cleverly in recent years to innovate and use technology to their advantage,” said Walter Kemp, director of the South-Eastern Europe Observatory at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime.
While some still carry cash across borders or use wire transfers, others are using encrypted communication tools, laundering money through cryptocurrencies and elaborate financial schemes and branching into cyber and cyber-enabled crime, Kemp told BIRN.

“But while criminals are first-movers and quick adapters in using technology, law enforcement agencies are lagging behind.”

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