Indicted CEO of Encrypted Phone Firm 'Sky' Says He Will Clear His Name

The CEO of Sky Jean-Francois Eap told Motherboard "The unfounded allegations of involvement in criminal activity by me and our company are entirely false."
March 14, 2021, 5:36pm
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Hacking. Disinformation. Surveillance. CYBER is Motherboard's podcast and reporting on the dark underbelly of the internet.

The CEO of encrypted phone company Sky, who on Friday the Department of Justice indicted for allegedly selling devices to help international drug traffickers avoid law enforcement, has told Motherboard he is focused on clearing his name.

Jean-Francois Eap told Motherboard "The unfounded allegations of involvement in criminal activity by me and our company are entirely false," responding to the indictment. "In the coming days, my efforts will be focused on clearing my name of these allegations," he added.

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The news signals how the Sky case is already different to that of the only other encrypted phone company that the Department of Justice has prosecuted. When authorities charged Vincent Ramos, the CEO of another firm called Phantom Secure, Ramos cooperated with agents before making an escape and then being recaptured. Eap's case may seemingly play out differently.

Do you work for Sky? Are you a Sky customer? Do you have documents related to these arrests or the company? We'd love to hear from you. Using a non-work phone or computer, you can contact Joseph Cox securely on Signal on +44 20 8133 5190, Wickr on josephcox, OTR chat on jfcox@jabber.ccc.de, or email joseph.cox@vice.com.

"The indictment against me personally by the U.S. District Court [for the] Southern District of California is an example of the police and the government trying to vilify anyone who takes a stance against unwarranted surveillance. It seems that it is simply not enough that you have not done anything illegal," Eap continued. "There is no question that I have been targeted, as Sky ECC has been targeted, only because we build tools to protect the fundamental right to privacy."

Sky is part of the encrypted phone industry, where various firms load their own messaging apps onto devices and then sell those phones to clients, often for thousands of dollars for an annual subscription. Some companies make physical alterations to the device, such as removing the microphone or GPS functionality. Some, like Sky, have a remote wipe feature that lets users delete their messages if they lose physical access to the device, according to the indictment.

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"Leaders, members and associates of SKY GLOBAL ENTERPRISE operated throughout the world, including Canada, Colombia, Mexico, Belgium, the Netherlands, Australia, and throughout the United States, including in the Southern District of California," the indictment reads. There are at least 70,000 Sky devices in use worldwide, according to the indictment.

Specifically, the indictment charges Eap under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), which the Southern District of California also used to prosecute Phantom Secure, and conspiracy to distribute illegal drugs and aiding and abetting. The indictment says Eap, also known as "888888," and Thomas Herdman, an alleged former distributor of Sky devices, "did knowingly and intentionally conspire with each other and others to aid and abet the distribution of at least 5 kilograms and more of a mixture and substance containing a detectable amount of cocaine." Acting U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman previously said in a statement that Sky "generated hundreds of millions of dollars providing a service that allowed criminal networks around the world to hide their international drug trafficking activity from law enforcement."

What evidence the Department of Justice has against Eap is not yet publicly known. In the case of Phantom Secure, undercover agents posing as drug traffickers caught Ramos saying his company's phones were made for drug trafficking. This sort of admission of deliberately facilitating narcotics smuggling is what legally could separate an encrypted phone firm from, say, Apple, Google, WhatsApp, or Signal, whose users may include criminals but don't specifically cater to them.

"As I have been following the media reports in [the] past week, it is with great sadness that I see far reaching coverage of what can only be described as erosion of the right to privacy. Sky’s technology works for the good of all. It was not created to prevent the police from monitoring citizens; it exists to prevent anyone from monitoring and spying on the global community," Eap told Motherboard.

"I do not condone illegal activity in any way, shape or form, and nor does our company. We stand for protection of privacy and freedom of speech in an era when these rights are under increasing attack. We do not condone illegal or unethical behavior by our partners or customers. To brand anyone who values privacy and freedom of speech as a criminal is an outrage," he added.

The indictment also came after a wave of law enforcement action against Sky in Europe. Authorities said they had obtained a billion messages of Sky users, decrypted around half of those, and arrested dozens of allegedly criminal Sky users. Sky claimed this collection was due to someone installing a rogue version of the Sky app on phones, and then selling those non-legitimate Sky devices.

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