Phantom Secure CEO, Vincent Ramos has been arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) on charges of aiding and abetting criminals through the sale of heavily modified smartphones. Specifically, the associated complaint lists that the executive was deliberately enabling drug trafficking and other crimes through the sale of rebuilt BlackBerry handsets. Specifically, the complaint ties Ramos in with the Sinaloa Drug Cartel and the Canada-based company’s CEO is said to have told undercover agents that the devices were actually made with drug cartels in mind. That is alleged to have happened in meetings between undercover agents and Ramos in February of last year in Las Vegas. FBI Special Agent Nicholas Cheviron, the complaint’s filer, has estimated that around 20,000 devices were sold to cartels for use. This is certainly not the first time technology has been used in this way. However, it may set precedence for future cases where a manufacturer appears to be explicitly operating solely to support criminal organizations.
Although BlackBerry is already considered to be an extremely secure brand, having built itself up on that, Phantom Secure takes the concept to extremes. The company removes a given device’s camera, GPS system, and microphone, to start with, before also installing modified software. That software removes the internet browsing capabilities and standard messaging tools. In their place, it installs specialized solutions that route communications over virtual private networks with extra encryption enabled. Beyond that, the devices can be easily wiped remotely, thanks to tools included on-device for situations where authorities obtain a Phantom Secure handset during investigations. Aside from the cartel listed above, the allegations surrounding the case are said to have uncovered that the Hells Angels gang is another prominent customer of Phantom Secure. Devices are sold globally but a substantial number are sent to Mexico, Cuba, and Venezuela. Approximately half are said to be sold in Australia. Phantom Secure is said to have profited quite a bit from the illegal business to the tune of tens of millions of dollars.
What tipped off authorities to the activity is not immediately clear, although the email addresses associated with customers are said to include dozens of references to violent crimes. Meanwhile, during the subsequent investigation, Canada’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police are said to have confirmed the complicit nature of Phantom’s interaction through undercover work. The authorities, posing as criminals, asked Phantom whether it was safe to send messages about the delivery of illegal substances and whether Phantom Secure could wipe devices of associates that had been arrested. Those findings are said to have been backed up further by cooperating witnesses from within the illegal organizations themselves.