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Decrypted PGP BlackBerry Messages Helped Convict UK Gun Smugglers

Law enforcement continue to crack down on the criminal use of so-called PGP BlackBerrys.

Joseph Cox

Joseph Cox

Image: NCA/Flickr

Law enforcement agencies across the world are cracking down on PGP smartphones as a means of secure communication for organised crime.

Last week, two leading members of a UK gang, which bought the largest amount of automatic weapons into the UK mainland ever detected by police, were convicted of importation and firearms offences. The two men, Harry Shilling and Michael Defraine, used so-called PGP BlackBerrys (custom smartphones that come pre-configured with an encrypted email feature), but their messages were ultimately decrypted and used to help convict them.

In court, prosecutors said the pair were clearly confident that PGP would protect their communications and were less careful with what they said on those devices than in non-encrypted messages.

Tom Guest, special organised crime prosectuor at the Crown Prosecution Service, said in a statement, "The prosecution deployed key evidence of email messages to demonstrate the criminality in this case. The defendants said they were '…now officially gangsters,' they were 'proper heavy and armed to the teeth' and said people should 'duck and run for cover.' Harry Shilling described his group as being an 'armed cartel' following the importation."

After the pair was arrested, the NCA obtained the phones and recovered the encrypted messages. According to the Guardian, the devices were sent to Royal Canadian Mounted Police for decryption. Canadian law enforcement has the capability to decrypt emails on PGP BlackBerrys, as do Dutch forensics experts.

The gang's haul included 22 Czech VZ-58 assault rifles and nine Skorpion machine pistols, as well as 58 magazines and more than a thousand rounds of ammunition, according to an NCA press release. The weapons were obtained from the same Eastern European source as those used in the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks in Paris, the Guardian reports.

The NCA's National Strategic Assessment of Serious and Organized Crime 2015 says that, "The increasing use of encrypted communication devices and apps poses a growing challenge to UK law enforcement. Although the devices and apps are legitimate, their adoption by criminal groups can enable attempts to evade law enforcement detection."

In the same week as Shilling and Defraine's convictions, Dutch and Canadian police seized a network used for PGP BlackBerrys that, according to police, was facilitating drug trafficking and other crimes. PGP BlackBerrys have also been linked to gang murders in Australia, and a kidnapping in Canada.