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The CEO of a renowned company, Phantom Secure was known to create highly reliable and secured smartphones allegedly used by some of the most notorious criminals has been impeached. Police forces tasked with catching criminals have been onto the process for quite some time.
Canadian-based Phantom Secure yielded “tens of millions of dollars” selling the modified Blackberry devices for use by the likes of the Sinaloa Cartel, investigators claimed.
This is the first time ever the US officials have targeted a company for knowingly aiding the criminals with encrypted technology, directly or indirectly.
The Department of Justice arrested Vincent Ramos in Seattle last week. He was accused on Thursday along with four associates.
The BBC has been unable to reach Phantom Secure.
They are accused of racketeering and conspiracy to assist the distribution of drugs. Both the crimes call for lifetime imprisonment. However, Mr. Ramos is the only one in police custody lately.
“This organization Phantom Secure was designed to facilitate international drug trafficking all throughout the entire world,” US attorney Adam Braverman told the BBC.
“These traffickers, including members of the Sinaloa Cartel, would use these fully-encrypted devices to facilitate their drug trafficking activities in order to avoid law enforcement scrutiny.”
Blackberry refrained from commenting until Thursday, and the investigators were not aware whether the firm was involved in this case or not.
Mr. Braverman commented, “Our understanding is there are a handful of other organizations that exist like this. The FBI, and our office, will continue investigating not only Phantom Secure but any other company that provides this kind of communication device to criminal organizations.”
He added that while almost every smartphone on the market offers hard-to-crack encryption – as well as apps from Facebook, Google and Apple – Phantom Secure should be held blameworthy for what the users of its services were doing.
“The difference is this company was specifically-designed to aid international drug trafficking organizations,” he stated.
“The only way that you’re able to actually utilize one of these devices and obtain one of these devices is if somebody else vouched for you.”
Phantom Secure sold devices on a subscription basis at a cost of $2,000-$3,000 for around six months of use.
Therefore, to become a customer, an existing user was required to vouch for the new person. That system, authorities said, was a way of preventing law enforcement from getting hold of the devices.
Agents estimated as many as 20,000 Phantom Secure-modified handsets are in use across the globe.
Communications through the phones are automatically routed to servers in Panama and Hong Kong, according to court documents, making data more difficult to trace.
Phantom Secure could also remove key functionality from the devices to lock them down, such as voice communication, microphone, GPS, camera, internet and messaging apps, leaving just the text functionality.
Law enforcement authorities have repeatedly been frustrated by encryption technology making it harder to access communications between suspects.
In 2016, Apple declined the provision of any such tool that would allow the FBI to unlock and access an iPhone belonging to Syed Farook, a man involved in a mass shooting that ultimately contributed to the death of 14 people.
On Thursday, a spokesman for the FBI recapped the agency’s concern about criminals being able to “go dark” and hide behind these sophisticated technologies.
Privacy and open rights activists argue that removing or just weakening encryption would put everyone at risk of data theft and mere surveillance – not just criminals.