back to article Dutch cops hope to cuff 'hundreds' of suspects after snatching server, snooping on 250,000+ encrypted chat texts

Dutch police claim to have snooped on more than a quarter of a million encrypted messages sent between alleged miscreants using BlackBox IronPhones. The extraordinary claim was made in a press conference on Tuesday, in which officers working on a money-laundering investigation reckoned they had been able to see crims chatting …

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  1. Hans 1 Silver badge

    Impressed by the Dutch Fuzz

    Congrats!

    Then again, the crooks should have been using a p2p implementation.

    1. DougS Silver badge

      Re: Impressed by the Dutch Fuzz

      If the cops compromise the people running the service, they could simply modify the P2P software to send copies to a central server and push the update.

      How many crims are going to sniff their outgoing traffic and figure that out? And if they do, how many will still be suspicious when they call support and are told the stuff being sent to the central server is harmless diagnostic information, to enable them to improve their software?

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Panic button

      Standard fare in Android, from the Guardian Project (no relation to the Mancunian rag).

      Central server is a massive no-no, as even without breaking the encryption you have access to all the metadata.

      "Custom" OTR implementation?

      3000 per year plus the douchy name tells you all you need to know about a) the security of the product and b) the credulity of the target customers.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    So

    Presumed Guilty until proven Innocent once we've gone through all of your private messages ?

    1. Steve 53

      Re: New???

      Well, yes, but I'd say paying €1.5k for 6 months with a phone with "unbreakable encryption" and "a panic button if you get nabbed by the fuzz" is probably reasonably grounds to suspect it's not just a private conversation about what groceries to bring home.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: New???

        Like how anyone who has Tor installed on their computer must be doing something illegal?

        1. Khaptain Silver badge

          Re: New???

          And anyone that owns a gun , knife, baseball bat is obviously a killer in waiting.....

      2. wayne 8

        Re: New???

        Without evidence of a criminal activity they seized the servers.

        1. DougS Silver badge

          Re: New???

          Without evidence of a criminal activity they seized the servers.

          Without evidence you've assumed this. The article mentions a drug lab, it is likely they already knew or at least suspected they were involved with drugs, and if you're a drug dealer you obviously have to be involved in money laundering, so...

          Depending on the circumstances under which they seized the servers, they might be able to look at all their customers if those circumstances made it likely they were mostly criminals (i.e. they sold them on a dark web site that is invite only for drug dealers, for instance) or they might only be able to target certain individuals that they have other reasons to suspect.

      3. DuncanLarge Bronze badge

        Re: New???

        @Steve 53

        "Well, yes, but I'd say paying €1.5k for 6 months with a phone with "unbreakable encryption" and "a panic button if you get nabbed by the fuzz" is probably reasonably grounds to suspect it's not just a private conversation about what groceries to bring home."

        Then why dont the police go out and arrest anyone driving a car that has an engine larger than a 1.6?

        Honestly, anyone wanting acceleration from an engine greater than 1.6L is intending to speed, possibly while out-running the police after robbing a bank or kidnapping a child.

        I saw someone driving what looked to be a Morgan recently. A wooden expensive car with a high top speed and huge acceleration! I shook my head as I drove my Hyundai Getz 1.6 (the "i'm innocent" limit) thinking of how many horrible crimes he must be involved in.

        Why are fast cars on the market?

        Why dont the police wire tap the phones of those who purchase them?

        In a country that has a speed limit of 70/80MPh there is totally no need for anyone to even sit in one of these crim-cars unless its on a track and has a special license like a gun owner would.

        Use your common sense man.

      4. Kabukiwookie

        Re: New???

        Although I agree with the general sentiment, they also could have just grabbed the customer list and listened in on their conversations in the 'traditional' way using a directional microphone and a court order to monitor a person suspected of committing a crime.

        This wholesale grab of all data just rubs me the wrong way.

        Someone like Snowden could be using this service and with the dutch government bending over backwards to the US interests usually, it wouldn't surprise me if this would be abused.

        1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          Re: New???

          On the other hand they have just made themselves enemies of the half dozen inteligence agencies who were already spying on the server when the Dutch police blew it.

      5. Jtom Bronze badge

        Re: New???

        Your ‘reasonable grounds’ might be used against someone wanting secure connections with his financial sites. Such connections are the virtual world’s equivalent of a door lock. Totally UNreasonable grounds.

    2. Primus Secundus Tertius Silver badge

      Re: So

      Correction: "Technically not yet guilty".

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: So

      >Presumed Guilty until proven Innocent once we've gone through all of your private messages ?

      Not at all. Probable cause (in US speak) is not the same as being declared guilty, that is the prerogative of the court.

      1. PacketPusher

        Re: So

        >Not at all. Probable cause (in US speak) is not the same as being declared guilty, that is the prerogative of the court.

        Not really. That is the prerogative of the jury unless the defendant waives his/her right to a jury. A judge can give a directed verdict of not guilty, but cannot declare guilt.

        1. JohnFen Silver badge

          Re: So

          The jury is part of the court.

    4. codejunky Silver badge

      Re: So

      The intrusion into peoples lives and the assumption that the state should be able to just trample anyone just because is very concerning. At what point has it moved from protecting us to being used against us?

      1. Eddy Ito Silver badge

        Re: So

        At what point has it moved from protecting us to being used against us?

        I believe it was 11 September 2001 if not before.

        1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

          Re: So

          "I believe it was 11 September 2001 if not before."

          No, that was when the US learned that what goes around comes around and that terrorism wasn't just something that happened on an island across the Atlantic and was probably harmless anyway so there was nothing wrong with contributing a few dollars here and there.

          1. Eddy Ito Silver badge

            Re: So

            No, that was when the US learned that what goes around comes around and...

            I get what you're saying which is that it was before, and that's fine. However you are mistaken to think that the US government has learned anything about things coming or going around.

          2. JohnFen Silver badge

            Re: So

            "that was when the US learned that what goes around comes around and that terrorism wasn't just something that happened on an island across the Atlantic"

            No, we already knew that from all the terrorist actions that came before 9/11. What the US re-learned from 9/11 was how easy it is to amplify and leverage fear in the population so that the government can get away with performing atrocities that would have otherwise been politically impossible.

    5. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: So

      "Presumed Guilty until proven Innocent once we've gone through all of your private messages ?"

      More like presumed guilty to allow us to go through your private messages.

      How many Commercial in Confidence and otherwise innocent messages were picked up and gone through?

  3. Nick Kew Silver badge
    Alert

    Sending a message

    If Dutch police have cracked this supposedly-secure communication channel, announcing it will serve to kill the channel and drive its users to an alternative.

    As if Bletchley Park had announced to the world that they'd cracked Enigma. Which might have materially affected the War.

    Dutch police presumably realise this, so it must be intentional. Why? It's a pretty high-value resource to give up!

    1. Steve K Silver badge

      Re: Sending a message

      The article mentions that they wanted to prevent retaliation within the group.

      If they had this information then I imagine that the Dutch police could be considered at fault if they did not act, particularly if innocent 3rd parties were caught up in the potential attacks.

    2. schekker

      Re: Sending a message

      The Dutch police announced it because members of the channel had noticed it was compromised (due to arrests), assumed there was a snitch, and were planning to murder the one they suspected. So to prevent a murder they shut the service down and went public with it.

    3. frank ly Silver badge

      Re: Sending a message

      "He added that police moved on the criminal operation to forestall “retaliatory action” between members accusing each other of snitching to the cops."

      They were worried about damage from many bullets flying?

      1. TeeCee Gold badge

        Re: Sending a message

        Then again, finding who you missed via the simple task of identifying the various corpses sounds a lot easier than actual detective work.

    4. wayne 8

      Re: Sending a message

      "Dutch police presumably realise this, so it must be intentional. Why? It's a pretty high-value resource to give up!"

      They wanted to alert the elite pedophiles.

      1. DougS Silver badge

        Re: Sending a message

        Usually authorities admit to stuff like this for one of two reasons. One, word has leaked that this happened (i.e. the guys who were arrested figured it out, or a cop on the take ratted them out) so there's no harm in making it public. Two, they will need to present evidence in court where they will have to disclose how they obtained the information so the cat's out of the bag if they want to get convictions.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Yet Another Warning about Privacy when using Any Server-based Communication....

    .....so.....

    1. Was the hosting company in bed with plod all along?

    2. Same question applies to ALL public-server-based communication.

    Maybe we need much more (privately encrypted) peer-to-peer communication, and much fewer public-server-based services.

    Oh....and internet cafes also help!

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Here's a service that allows you to chat without the authorities seeing and for the purpose of stopping them from seeing.

    What did they expect the outcome to be? Are criminals really that dumb?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Are criminals really that dumb?

      Do you really have to ask?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Yes, yes I do.

        Back in the day when I was a criminal I got away with loads of stuff.

        Oh wait, now I see your point.

        Disclaimer: This is humour, I was never a criminal, honest guv I hold me ands up and swear.

        1. Fading Silver badge

          Cough cough

          You are only a criminal after you are convicted prior to this you are a person of interest, accused or MP....... (allegedly)

    2. JohnFen Silver badge

      "Are criminals really that dumb?"

      Yes, for the most part.

  6. ratfox Silver badge
    Black Helicopters

    Looks like the plod should directly create the "secure" chat systems themselves, and advertise it to criminals.

    Maybe they did already!

  7. T. F. M. Reader Silver badge

    "End-to-end encryption" isn't?

    So, not only were the comms not encrypted end-to-end, as is often claimed, but, if I understand correctly, there was no way to securely exchange encryption keys, e.g., at a personal meeting between Alice and Bob, to prevent MITM.

    I have a distinct impression that the vaunted "end-to-end encryption" of WhatsApp, Telegram, etc., suffers from the same kind of flaw.

    1. Wim Ton

      Re: "End-to-end encryption" isn't?

      Depends how you define "end" :-)

    2. Ben Tasker Silver badge

      Re: "End-to-end encryption" isn't?

      > So, not only were the comms not encrypted end-to-end

      It's quite possible they were end-to-end encrypted *before* the Dutch Police got their hands on it, but relied on the server to aid in key exchange (or perhaps to specify some other important element).

      If that's the case then they may have adjusted the server so that the client's unknowingly did KEX with the server instead (so that it could MiTM).

      Even then, though, you'd hope that 2 clients that had seen each other before would then warn their owners that the other ends key seemed to have changed. The various "standard" OTR plugins you get for various apps all do at least that

      > if I understand correctly, there was no way to securely exchange encryption keys, e.g., at a personal meeting between Alice and Bob, to prevent MITM.

      I read it that way too - or at least, if there was a way it wasn't widely used (and probably wasn't the default).

      That's fairly common amongst OTR libraries though, some won't even let you import keys from another system (so if you have multiple devices you end up with multiple 'identities'), so probably not too surprising.

      Most, though, do provide a fingerprint for you to verify out of band, others let you use a challenge/response mechanism (again, out of band), and would show the fingerprint as unverified until you've told it otherwise. Perhaps that got dropped while they were customising it?

      Can't find an awful lot of information on their implementation on the net, but with the very limited information that is available it does sound like they customised OTR and made it worse.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: "End-to-end encryption" isn't?

        @Ben_Tasker

        Why is there always an assumption that encryption on the internet can only mean ALL these things:

        - users are using public-server-based communications (e.g. email)

        - users depend on the public-server(s) for encryption

        - each specific communication has an identifiable sender

        - each specific communication has an identifiable recipient

        In the place of these assumptions, suppose users did it differently:

        - put in place a private cipher system (say a book cipher)

        - the sender publishes a cipher message from an internet cafe using, say, The Register Comments as an Anonymous Coward (or using a fake identity on FB....)

        - the recipient picks up the message in another internet cafe

        In these alternative circumstances:

        - it will be hard to identify the sender

        - it will be even harder to identify the recipient

        - ....and that's before the curious out there try to break the private cipher (irrespective of any end-to-end encryption provided by the services provided over the internet)

        What am I missing here?

        1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

          Re: "End-to-end encryption" isn't?

          "What am I missing here?"

          That setting up a private cipher requires thinking. It also requires that the parties meet to agree it or use a go-between who can be compromised.

      2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: "End-to-end encryption" isn't?

        "Even then, though, you'd hope that 2 clients that had seen each other before would then warn their owners that the other ends key seemed to have changed."

        This is a case of hanged if you do and hanged if you don't. If you use the same key all the time any messages which have been intercepted and stored in the past can be decrypted if the key is later compromised - which is more difficult if the server didn't store the key - but you can tell if the key's been changed. If you use a different key each time then past messages are safe but the key exchange is susceptible to MitM attack if the server is compromised.

    3. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: "End-to-end encryption" isn't?

      "So, not only were the comms not encrypted end-to-end, as is often claimed, but, if I understand correctly, there was no way to securely exchange encryption keys"

      They may well have been encrypted end-to-end but the keys were compromised.

    4. DuncanLarge Bronze badge

      Re: "End-to-end encryption" isn't?

      "I have a distinct impression that the vaunted "end-to-end encryption" of WhatsApp, Telegram, etc., suffers from the same kind of flaw."

      Whatsapp uses the Signal protocol. Adopted from the Signal chat app that is fully end-to-end with MITM protection. But as its now owned by Facebook, we might find something changes eventually.

      Telegram has always been broken. They were audited and failed as they had "rolled their own" crypto, which you simply dont do. Telegram has the marketing but not the features. Its end to end encryption is off by default and it relies on a homegrown encryption method that is considered to be buggy and untested.

      Use Signal, or something that implements the Signal protocol. Or Threema which is also good.

      Best thing to do is listen to the EFF and Edward Snowden when they make recommendations. Its worth noting that the EFF have stated they have serious concerns over Telegram. Edward Snowden uses Signal almost exclusively.

      Signal is also entirely licensed under the GNU GPL v3 and GNU AGPL v3. Unlike Telegram which has only parts licensed in any "open source" way.

  8. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    Oooh, clever !

    Now politicians will finally have an iron-clad excuse to get backdoors into encryption. Look how it helped in the Netherlands, they'll say.

    While I applaud the results, I fear for our encryption. The Dutch police didn't backdoor anything, they got a warrant, seized the server, and did their business. That's legal. Backdooring encryption for the purpose of snooping on everyone all the time is not only illegal and impossible, it's also highly immoral.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Oooh, clever !

      Sadly though people don't care enough to stop if from happening.

    2. Alan Brown Silver badge

      Re: Oooh, clever !

      "Now politicians will finally have an iron-clad excuse to get backdoors into encryption. "

      You don't NEED to put backdoors into encryption if you do it the way the dutch system was setup. This was a classic MITM (with the authorised keys all along) approach.

      1. Ben Tasker Silver badge

        Re: Oooh, clever !

        > You don't NEED to put backdoors into encryption if you do it the way the dutch system was setup

        Yup, if anything, this is an argument for why backdoors aren't needed.

    3. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: Oooh, clever !

      "they got a warrant, seized the server"

      There's no mention of a warrant in the article. Even if they did get one then all the traffic through the service was compromised. There seems to be a presumption that all the traffic was illegal. If you were using the service to negotiate a confidential but legitimate negotiation - say a merger - you now know the Dutch police had access to it. They were snooping on everyone, at least everyone using the service. Who, apart from the Dutch police, knows what legitimate stuff has been compromised?

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