Judicial and law enforcement authorities in the Netherlands and Germany have dealt another blow to the use of encrypted communications by criminal networks. Eurojust and Europol have supported the dismantling of the Exclu application, which had an estimated 3 000 users, including members of organised crime groups (OCGs).
During an action day last week, 45 arrests took place in the Netherlands and Belgium. The arrested persons included users of the application, but also administrators and owners of the Exclu service. Furthermore, 79 locations were searched in the Netherlands, Germany and Poland. Following this operation, the service is no longer available for users.
Investigations into the application began in June 2020 by the German authorities, who shared information with their Dutch law enforcement counterparts. This enabled separate investigations by the Dutch authorities. Their specific expertise in cybercrime communications enabled them to follow the communications of criminal networks for a period of five months and subsequently dismantle the service.
Licences to use Exclu were obtainable for an amount of EUR 800 for a six-month period, allowing users to share written messages, pictures, video materials and chat conversations. The application was praised by users for its high level of reliability and security. For its services, Exclu used a server which was based in Germany.
Eurojust has been supporting the investigations since February 2022, enabling cross-border judicial cooperation between the Dutch and German authorities. A total of eight coordination meetings were organised by the Agency to prepare for the action day and the dismantling of the encrypted communication tool.
Through its role as a crime intelligence hub and its analytical and technical systems, Europol was able to provide operational support for real-time criminal investigations, focusing in particular on crime incidents that posed an imminent threat to life or a high security risk based on organised and other serious crimes.
During the action day, 1 200 police officers were deployed. Two drug laboratories were dismantled and EUR 5.5 million in cash, 300 000 ecstasy tablets and 20 firearms were seized. 200 phones were also seized for investigation.
Previous operations against encrypted tools
The dismantling of Exclu follows the successful dismantling of the EncroChat and Sky ECC communication tools in 2020 and 2021, with the support of Eurojust and Europol.
The action day was carried out by:
- Germany: General Public Prosecutors Office Koblenz (Generalstaatsanwaltschaft Koblenz, Landeszentralstelle Cybercrime (LZC); State Criminal Police Office Rhineland-Palatinate (Landeskriminalamt Rheinland-Pfalz)
- The Netherlands: National Public Prosecution Office (Landelijk Parket); National Police (Nationale Politie, Landelijke Eenheid); Fiscal Information and Investigation Service (FIOD)
- Poland: Regional Prosecutor’s Office Lublin (Prokuratura Regionalna w Lublinie); Central Office for Combating Cybercrime (Centralne Biuro Zwalczania Cyberprzestępczości)