The owner of a business providing ultra-secure BlackBerries to the Sinaloa drug cartel and other organizations has been arrested following a multi-agency law enforcement operation, according to an Affidavit filed in the Southern District of California located in San Diego.
Working in conjunction with Canadian and Australian authorities on an operation dating back to at least 2015, authorities raided the business and home of Vincent Ramos, 41 - founder and CEO of Canada-based Phantom Secure, who is charged with racketeering conspiracy to conduct enterprise affairs, conspiracy to distribute narcotics, and aiding and abetting the cartel. Ramos sold over 20,000 phones worldwide, mostly to "the upper echelon members of various transnational criminal organizations." In fact, investigators were unable to identify "even a single legitimate Phantom Secure user."
A second source also familiar with the secure phone industry told Motherboard that the devices have been sold in Mexico, Cuba, and Venezuela, as well as to the Hells Angels gang. -Motherboard.com
Ramos appeared in a Seattle Federal Court on Thursday and was ordered detailed pending his transfer to San Diego where he will stand trial.
According to the heavily redacted filing written by FBI Special Agent Nicholas Cheviron, the encrypted phones "were specifically designed to prevent law enforcement from intercepting and monitoring communication on the network," by disabling key functionalities which can be used for tracking and surveillance. Phantom Secure - founded over a decade ago, guaranteed clients that if their BlackBerry is captured by law enforcement or otherwise compromised, they will remotely wipe its memory.
During the sting operation, undercover Canada's Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) posed as drug traffickers, where they asked Phantom Secure to delete the contents of an associate's device after "learning" he was arrested:
"when Phantom Secure receives the Blackberry handsets, its technical team removes the hardware and software responsible for all external architecture, including voice communication, microphone, GPS navigation, camera, Internet, and Messenger service," reads the Affidavit.
"Phantom Secure then installs "Pretty Good Privacy" (PGP) encryption software and "Advanced Encryption Standard" (AES) on top of an email program, which it routes through encrypted servers located in countries, such as Panama and Hong Kong, believed by Phantom Secure to be uncooperative with law enforcement."
The company then masked the location of its servers containing the encryption keys and email through "multiple layers of virtual proxy networks."
Saudi Arabia notably banned the use of BlackBerry phones in 2010 due to their already robust encryption due to the fact that they couldn't perform surveillance thanks to the phone's encryption capabilities.
Because the phone encrypts email and BBM messages and sends them through RIM's own servers in Canada, rather than the network operator's own servers, there's no way for the government to force the operator to hand over some kinds of conversations made using the phone. -CNET
Similarly, Phantom Secure used their own encryption software routed through servers under their control.
In order to do business with Ramos, a new customer would require an existing customer to refer and vouch for them. Each phone also requires a $4,000 - $6,000 per year subscription to communicate through Phantom Secure's encrypted network. Ramos funneled profits from device and service sales through various shell companies, and used cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin to "launder its ill-gotten gains and maintain its members' anonymity."
“We made it—we made it specifically for this [drug trafficking] too,” Ramos told undercover agents, according to a transcript included in the court filing.
User names of cartel members obtained by investigators included the phrases "Leadslinger," "the.cartel," "trigger-happy," and "knee_capper9."
At one point, the Australian Federal Police began surreptitiously using a Phantom Secure BlackBerry seized from an Australian national arrested for drug smuggling. Authorities communicated with an unknown individual with Los Angeles, where they set up a deal for 16 kilograms of cocaine.
As part of its investigation into Ramos and Phantom Secure, the FBI has at least one cooperating witness—a convicted transnational drug trafficker from the Sinaloa cartel—according to the complaint. This unnamed witness, along with someone named Marc Emerson who was alleged to be involved in the drug trafficking before dying due to an overdose in June 2017, were customers of Phantom Secure, and used the company’s devices to conduct their transnational drug trafficking activity, the complaint adds. This is where the aiding and abetting charge comes in—the cooperating witness allegedly used a Phantom device while organizing the transit of five kilograms of cocaine. -Motherboard.com