Phantom Secure allegedly provided 20,000 modified BlackBerry phones to drug cartels
This isn’t the plotline to a Narcos meets Silicon Valley crossover, but it might as well be. The CEO of a Canada-based firm has been indicted for conspiring with drug cartels to help fuel global drug trafficking through the medium of modified BlackBerry phones.
Phantom Secure CEO, Vincent Ramos, and his four associates have been accused of knowingly conspiring with criminal organisations by the US Department of Justice.
The company’s modified BlackBerry handsets were allegedly sold with a higher level of encryption and were often only able to send text messages, making it difficult for law-enforcement organisations to track and trace drug cartels around the world. Any communication made through the phone was reportedly automatically routed to countries such as Panama and Hong Kong.
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According to the court documents, Phantom Secure allegedly advertised its encrypted devices with criminals in mind, outlining how they were impervious to decryption, wiretapping or third-party records requests. Additionally, the company guaranteed users the “destruction of evidence contained within a device if it was compromised, either by an informant, or because it fell into the hands of law enforcement”.
Before the indictment, there were an estimated 20,000 Phantom Secure phones in circulation. The company sold devices on a subscription-based service, roughly for $2,000-$3,000 (£1,450-£2,150) for each six-month period. Phantom Secure’s devices were only obtainable if an existing customer vouched for the new customer, keeping the user base tightly controlled.
“As a result of this groundbreaking prosecution, we will disable the communication infrastructure provided by a criminal enterprise to drug traffickers and other violent criminals,” said US attorney Adam Braverman. “Phantom Secure was designed to profit off of criminal activity committed by transnational criminal organisations around the world. We are committed to shutting these criminals down.”
This is in fact the first time the US government has gone after a firm on these kinds of charges, and Phantom Secure phones no longer work.
Law-enforcement agencies already have a somewhat strained relationship with tech giants who extol the virtues of encryption and privacy. Many of you will remember the brouhaha between Apple and the FBI back in 2016, when Apple refused to unlock the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone.