AMSTERDAM - For five months, police in the Netherlands have been able to read the encrypted communications criminals shared with each other using the Messenger app. Authorities in the Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium cooperated in carrying out 79 searches, leading to the arrests of 42 people including users, administrators, and the chat service's owners, police said. The arrests almost certainly prevented assassinations from being carried out abroad, Dutch police stated.
Eurojust and Europol were also involved in the operation, along with agencies in Italy, Sweden and France. One primary website for the service was offline on Friday afternoon, and users were no longer able to send or receive chat messages, photos, voice memos, and videos. The messenger service boasted over 10,000 clients, though Dutch authorities said this was closer to 3,000, including 750 who wrote messages in the Dutch language.
"Initial results show that two drug labs and a cocaine laundry were found. In addition, several kilograms of narcotics, more than 4 million euros in cash, various luxury goods and several firearms were seized," the police and the Public Prosecution Service said on Friday afternoon.
The website offered a three-month license to use the service for 500 euros, and a six-month license for 900 euros. The encrypted communications people confidence that their messages cannot be viewed by anyone other than the sender and the intended recipient, making it a popular choice for the criminal underworld. It was not immediately clear if the Dutch authorities infiltrated the encrypted end-to-end communications service, or if they created a copycat of to catch criminal suspects.
"The service has been dismantled and the data has been obtained by applying specialist knowledge and expertise in the field of technology and cybercrime, and by using hacking capabilities. In addition, the detectives also used traditional investigative methods to successfully identify users of the app," police said.
Dutch police said the arrests stem from two separate investigations. The first, called 26Samber, started in September 2020, and targeted the owners and managers behind . Police suspect them of acting as a criminal organization by "facilitating other criminals," authorities said. "The reason for the Dutch investigation was information obtained about the owners and managers of the service."
As it turns out, German authorities had started an investigation into a few months earlier, and began sharing evidence with their Dutch counterparts. The other investigation, dubbed 26Lytham, began late last April. The second investigation specifically looked into " users who are suspected of committing crimes in an organized context."
The 26Lytham case ultimately led to the searches carried out on Friday, while 26Samber led to other searches and arrests just in the Netherlands and Germany.