The people behind a company that hacked Samsung and BlackBerry phones to make them more secure, have been indicted for allegedly conniving with drug cartels to help them evade law enforcement and sell narcotics.
The Canada-based firm, Phantom Secure, sold Samsung and BlackBerry devices that had been modified with a higher encryption for use by the likes of the Sinaloa Cartel . This made it difficult for the authorities to trace drug traffickers.
Vincent Ramos, the CEO of the company, along with four associates were accused on Thursday by the Department of Justice (DOJ) of “knowingly and intentionally conspiring with criminal organisations by providing them with the technological tools to evade law enforcement and obstruct justice while committing transnational drug trafficking.”
The other associates are Kim Augustus Rodd, Younes Nasri, Michael Gamboa and Christopher Poquiz.
The charges marked the first time US authorities have targeted a company for knowingly making encrypted technology for criminals.
“When criminals go dark, and law enforcement cannot monitor their phones or access evidence, crimes cannot be solved, criminals cannot be stopped and lives can be lost,” U.S. Attorney Adam Braverman, told the press on Thursday.
He added that the communication network provided by Phantom Secure will be disabled.
The indictment alleges that Phantom Secure has made over $80 million in annual revenues since 2008 and “facilitated drug trafficking, obstruction of justice, and violent crime around the world.”
Phantom Secure sold devices on a subscription basis at a cost of $2,000-$3,000 for around six months of use.
In order to become a customer, an existing user must vouch for the new person. This was a way of preventing law enforcement from getting hold of the devices.
According to court documents, there were up to 20,000 Phantom Secure devices in use worldwide.
Law enforcement authorities have been frustrated by encryption technology making it difficult to access communications between suspects.
In 2016, Apple refused to provide a tool that would help the FBI to unlock an iPhone belonging to Syed Farook, a man involved in a mass shooting that resulted in the death of 14 people.
The charges and allegations contained in an indictment or complaint are merely accusations, and the defendants are considered innocent unless and until proven guilty, the DOJ has said.