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    105: Secret Cells

    Conduct a thorough background check before trusting any encrypted phone company to avoid any association with criminal activities.

    en-usNovember 23, 2021

    About this Episode

    Joseph Cox (https://twitter.com/josephfcox), Senior Staff Writer at Motherboard (https://www.vice.com/en/topic/motherboard), joins us to talk about the world of encrypted phones. Books Affiliate links to books: The Smart Girl’s Guide to Privacy: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1593276486/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=1593276486&linkCode=as2&tag=tunn01-20&linkId=0a8ee2ca846534f77626757288d77e00 Extreme Privacy:https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0898YGR58/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=B0898YGR58&linkCode=as2&tag=tunn01-20&linkId=575c5ed0326484f0b612f000621b407f Sponsors Support for this show comes from IT Pro TV. Get 65 hours of free training by visiting ITPro.tv/darknet. And use promo code DARKNET. Support for this show comes from Ping Identity, champions of identity for the global enterprise. Give your users a loveable login solution. Visit www.pingidentity.com/. View all active sponsors. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit podcastchoices.com/adchoices

    🔑 Key Takeaways

    • When purchasing a smartphone, prioritize security. Be aware that Android and iPhone devices are data collectors, and consider purchasing a phone with privacy-focused features and functionalities.
    • While security is important, it's essential to offer basic features and be accessible to all users. Not considering this can eventually lead to a downfall.
    • Companies should be cautious about who they sell their products to and ensure they are not knowingly supporting criminal activities. Failure to do so may result in dire legal consequences.
    • The FBI offered to put a backdoor in Phantom Secure to prosecute the end users while focusing on gathering more information instead of taking down the company.
    • Despite the FBI's relentless pressure, Vince Ramos refused to give them access to the network, highlighting his commitment to maintaining his clients' privacy and his willingness to risk his freedom to protect it.
    • Encrypted phone companies used for illegal activities can be shut down by law enforcement by using unconventional methods such as malware, unveiling the identities of criminals and bringing them to justice.
    • Law enforcement will go to great lengths to stop crime, but privacy and potential misuse of security laws are valid concerns.
    • Encrochat, a popular secure communication platform, was compromised, and the French police used spyware to collect data without users' knowledge. The operation resulted in hundreds of UK arrests under Operation Venetic.
    • While encrypted phones are legal, companies selling to criminals may face legal consequences. The potential for malware and violation of non-criminal privacy rights raises ethical concerns. Recent decryption of Sky phone messages shows these phones can be exploited. Legal disputes may arise for non-criminal users.
    • Encrypted phone companies must strengthen their security measures and ensure they do not unknowingly facilitate criminal activity. They cannot be immune to government scrutiny and must prioritize customer safety.
    • Law enforcement's fight against organized crime includes hacking into networks, servers, and phones for evidence. Real-world examples like the MPC encrypted phone company highlight the need for access to private messages.
    • Conduct a thorough background check before trusting any encrypted phone company to avoid any association with criminal activities.
    • Silent Circle is a secure phone platform that offers privacy and security for regular users who value their data. It's important to have reliable and secure phone options for everyone, not just criminals.
    • Use communication apps with end-to-end encryption, keep your phone updated, and consider using a Wi-Fi-only device to prevent SIM-swapping. The book Extreme Privacy by Michael Bazzell provides further guidance.

    đź“ť Podcast Summary

    The Importance of Privacy-Focused Features when Buying a Phone.

    The two most popular smartphones - Android and iPhone - are huge data collectors, logging every single thing we do on our phones. While marketing companies want to know us intimately to run targeted ads, adversaries are trying to find our private information. In such a scenario, security should be the first priority while buying a phone, but unfortunately, there are no good options in the market that actually respect privacy. Companies like Phantom Secure make private phones, but they also have some dark secrets. It's time to understand the importance of confidentiality, integrity, and availability - the three main pillars of security - and realize that privacy-focused features and functionalities should be the most important aspect of buying a phone.

    The Rise and Fall of Phantom Secure

    Phantom Secure was an encrypted phone firm that provided custom PGP-encrypted email software and remote wiping feature. However, these phones were expensive and lacked basic features such as text messaging and phone calls. Also, it was exclusively available to users subscribed to their network, making it difficult to communicate with non-users. The creator of Phantom Secure, Vince Ramos, initially started selling it through word-of-mouth but realized later that organized crime elements in Australia were purchasing these phones. While owning a secure phone is not illegal, the hindrance of a criminal investigation led to legal action against Phantom Secure. Therefore, despite the hype about security, lack of key features and exclusivity with illegitimate clientele eventually led to their downfall.

    The Rise and Fall of a Criminal Communication Company

    Phantom Secure, a company that made encrypted communication devices, was discovered to be aiding criminals by deleting incriminating evidence on their devices. While selling the phones was not illegal, the company's distributors knowingly provided the devices to criminal entities. However, the company continued to operate and grow for years without legal consequences, as there wasn't a law in Canada or Australia, where the company was based, that they would be violating. But once the phones started showing up in crime scenes in California, the US authorities started investigating the company and realized that it was an actual criminal organization that they should target in and of itself. Therefore, companies should be mindful of who they are providing their products to and ensure they are not knowingly aiding and abetting criminal activities.

    FBI's Efforts to Arrest the CEO of Phantom Secure for Selling Encrypted Phones to Criminals

    The CEO of Phantom Secure, Vince Ramos, knowingly sold encrypted phones to criminals for illegal activities and turned a blind eye to the issue. He even met with members of the Sinaloa Cartel and boasted about his success in selling phones to them as well. The FBI had enough evidence to arrest Ramos and decided to make him an offer to put a backdoor in Phantom Secure so law enforcement could prosecute the end users. These phones were a major source of information for criminals, making them a significant target for law enforcement. While trying to take down the company is an option, the goal was to gather more information and prosecute the end users.

    The FBI's Pressure Tactics on Vince Ramos for Access to the Phantom Secure Network

    The FBI spent days interrogating Vince Ramos in a hotel room, pressuring him to give them access to the Phantom Secure network. However, despite showing him evidence and giving him hardball options, Ramos refused to give them access. The FBI wanted to keep him out and free to talk to people in case they did eventually get a backdoor into the network. Eventually, on the third night, when he saw all the agents were asleep, Ramos fled the hotel and went on the run. He traveled to Washington state and was eventually caught by authorities in a cafe. The FBI wanted more than just an arrest and prosecution, they wanted a live operation and access to the network.

    The Downfall of Encrypted Phone Companies in Criminal Activities Unveiled by Law Enforcement

    Phantom Secure, an encrypted phone company, was shut down by the US government in 2018. The founder, Vince Ramos, was found guilty of aiding criminals and sentenced to nine years in prison. Encrochat, another encrypted phone company, was more popular but was mainly used by criminals to facilitate drug trafficking and assassination plots. UK and French police were investigating Encrochat, and the French police decided to push malware to the Encrochat devices instead of identifying the owners and shutting down the company. Through the malware, they were able to access the messages and photos on the devices before they got wiped. This controversial plan helped the police bring many criminals to justice.

    French police hack into Encrochat server to catch drug and money laundering criminals.

    The French police hacked into the secure Encrochat server to plant malware on thousands of users' phones, allowing them to access and record sensitive information about drug and money laundering, assassinations, and Bitcoin laundering. While the move was controversial, the police achieved an impressive technological feat by reverse-engineering how the server sends updates to phones and creating a stealthy spyware toolkit that allowed them to capture millions of chat messages sent and received by criminals worldwide. This highlights the lengths to which law enforcement will go to stop crime, but also raises concerns about privacy and the potential misuse of updates and security laws.

    French police's secret operation and its impact on global Encrochat users.

    The French police secretly planted spyware on phones of Encrochat users worldwide, collecting private messages without the users' knowledge. They infected 50% of all Encrochat users worldwide and shared the data with various law enforcement agencies around the world to dig through the flagged threats to life. Encrochat was oblivious to the compromised phones, and the illegal business and crime went on as usual. After some arrests started happening, Encrochat suspected something wrong with their network and advised their users to destroy their device. While the French authorities were unable to identify the owners of Encrochat and requested them to come forward, criminal hierarchies in the UK were widely affected with hundreds of arrests made under Operation Venetic.

    Law Enforcement Agencies Investigate Encrypted Phone Companies for Criminal Use

    Law enforcement agencies are actively investigating encrypted phone companies like Encrochat and Sky ECC due to their popularity among criminal groups. While the use of encrypted phones is legal, companies that knowingly sell to criminals may face legal consequences. However, the widespread deployment of malware and the potential violation of privacy rights of non-criminal users raises ethical concerns. The recent decryption of Sky phone messages by Belgian police demonstrates that these phones are not completely secure and can potentially be exploited by law enforcement agencies. The investigation of encrypted phone companies is ongoing and may result in legal disputes, especially for non-criminal users whose privacy rights may have been violated.

    Encrypted Phone Companies Face Scrutiny from Law Enforcement

    Law enforcement agencies around the world are becoming sophisticated in fighting crime through the use of supply chain attacks, malware, and indicting encrypted phone companies. The cases of Phantom Secure, Encrochat, Sky ECC, and Ennetcom show that these companies are not immune to government scrutiny. Sky encryption currently faces a legal battle with the US Department of Justice that hinges on whether they knowingly sold phones to criminals to facilitate criminal activity. These cases highlight the need for encrypted phone companies to improve their security systems to prevent government infiltration and to ensure that they are not unknowingly selling compromised phones to customers.

    European Police Infiltrate Criminal Networks

    The European police are actively hacking into and infiltrating networks, servers, and phones in order to collect evidence on criminals. This is different than what was previously imagined, and requires a lot of time and effort to build a team capable of carrying out such offensive operations. The going dark debate around access law enforcement should have to private messages and what is off-limits and on-limits should include these real-world case studies. MPC is an encrypted phone company made by organized crime for organized crime, run by two top-tier gangsters. They see an opportunity to require people to use their phones if they want to work with them.

    Organized Criminals using encrypted phones for their activities

    MPC, an encrypted phone company, was run by organized criminals who used violence and intimidation to establish themselves in the market. They tried to get marketing by collaborating with a former criminal blogger and to get legitimacy through reviews from journalists. The police later found out that it was being run by criminal brothers from Scotland - James and his brother. This unusual business opportunity led to their arrest and investigation by the police. This incident highlights the need to be cautious while trusting encrypted phone companies and the importance of conducting thorough background checks to avoid any association with criminal activities.

    The Need for Secure Phones in the Age of Law Enforcement Infiltration

    Law enforcement agencies are constantly trying to infiltrate encrypted and secure phones used by criminals to gather incriminating evidence, as evident from the ANOM honeypot created by the FBI. However, regular users who value privacy also want secure phones that do not compromise their data. While many encrypted phone companies have been shut down in the past, users continue to move to newer ones when they shut down. Silent Circle, created by the creator of PGP, is a secure phone platform that offers encrypted text messages and emails. With the increasing demand for privacy and security, it's essential to have secure and reliable phones available for everyone, not just criminals.

    Tips for Securing Your Digital Life

    To ensure security and privacy, it is recommended to use communication apps like Signal, Wickr, or Wire, which use end-to-end encryption. It is also important to keep the phone updated with the latest security updates to fix vulnerabilities. For Android users, it is advised to get the Google Pixel, which receives security updates first. However, SIM-swapping is still a big security threat, and to prevent this, one can use a Wi-Fi-only device like an iPod Touch as a primary work phone. Extreme Privacy: What It Takes to Disappear by Michael Bazzell is a recommended book that provides tips on securing your digital life.

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