The fall of the Sky: secure messaging hack led to mass arrests at Antwerp

When Dutch and French police came crashing down on organised crime in the Netherlands last year, criminals in the Belgian underworld of kidnapping, money laundering, cocaine, and weapons trading didn’t break a sweat.

After all, they were using ‘the world’s most secure messaging app’ for their illicit dealings in everything from drug trafficking to torture and murder, and the Port of Antwerp was their playground.

The reason Belgian crime lords slept soundly at night was due in part to their faith in a Canadian company. Sky ECC sold expensive custom phones equipped with their special encrypted messaging service. Texts sent with the phones were automatically deleted after thirty seconds, and if a user entered a “panic” password, the contents of the device were immediately erased.

With cameras, microphones, and GPS disabled, the phones were essentially impossible to track, and the messages supposedly impossible to crack.

While critics said that the majority of their users were criminals, Sky ECC defended their “strong belief in a right to privacy” and resisted cooperating with police and judicial authorities. Their website offered a 5 million USD (€4.2 million) prize to anyone who could crack its encryption.

“We succeeded. We will send Sky ECC the account number of the federal police,” federal prosecutor Frédéric Van Leeuw told De Standaard.

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