Encrypted Phone Firm Ciphr, Used by Criminals, Moves to Cut Off Australia

Ciphr is one of the few remaining players in the encrypted phone industry after the FBI secretly ran its own firm called Anom.
September 13, 2021, 5:05pm
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Image: Artur Debat
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Hacking. Disinformation. Surveillance. CYBER is Motherboard's podcast and reporting on the dark underbelly of the internet.

Encrypted phone firm Ciphr, which is popular among organized criminals, has made moves to stop operating in Australia, according to photos of a Ciphr device obtained by Motherboard and an encrypted phone industry source.

The news signals a potential shakeup in the encrypted phone industry, which has been rocked by a recent wave of law enforcement operations. In June, Motherboard reported that the FBI secretly ran its own secure phone company called Anom to intercept users' messages. Ciphr is one of the few remaining established players in the space.

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Following the Anom operation, Ciphr's owner "got really scared that they would come to him," the source in the encrypted phone industry in Australia told Motherboard. Motherboard gave the source anonymity so they could speak more candidly about sensitive industry matters.

The source said Ciphr has banned the company's resellers in Australia. Encrypted phone companies often work by outsourcing the sale of phones to individual distributors and agents based in particular markets. "If the international resellers get caught sending phones to Australia they also get cut off," the source added.

Are you a Ciphr user or distributor? Did you used to sell or use any phones from similar companies? 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, or email joseph.cox@vice.com.

In early July, another person provided Motherboard with screenshots of a Ciphr device. One screenshot showed that the user still had multiple days left on their subscription plan, but the status bar at the top of the screen read "disconnected." The person said the screenshots came from an Australian Ciphr phone.

The encrypted phone industry source said that Ciphr has also stopped operating in America, but Motherboard has not seen screenshots from a U.S.-based device.

"We will not be providing a comment at this time," someone in control of Ciphr's media email address told Motherboard in July. The company provided an identical response when asked again last week.

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Ciphr offers a series of privacy-focused apps that the company installs on Android-based hardware. These include Ciphr Text, which is an instant end-to-end encrypted messaging app; an email system called Ciphr Mail, and Ciphr Vault, which is designed to securely store files locally on the device. Encrypted phone distributors can sell devices with companies' software for thousands of dollars for a six month or annual subscription.

Ciphr is heavily used by criminal groups, including bulk drug traffickers in Australia. One particular organization ran by a mastermind known as Mr. Blonde seems to have escaped the Anom operation because his associates were instead using Ciphr, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

One former distributor for Phantom Secure, an encrypted phone company that the U.S. Department of Justice shut down in 2018, previously described to Motherboard a meeting they had with Ciphr representatives.

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"I felt like I was in a mafia-esque situation during that meeting," the distributor said.

Ciphr recently introduced a free app called Ciphr Lite which has been downloaded over a thousand times, according to its listing on the Google Play Store. The app does not require a phone number or email address for users to register. At least some reviewers who appear to be Ciphr users seem annoyed by the prospect of potentially anyone being able to message anyone else on the Ciphr network if they have the setting enabled.

"Why the f would [you] release an app connected to paid subscribers. This isn't a game," one review reads. Other reviews say the app works well.

The list of countries that Ciphr plans to introduce Ciphr Lite to includes some 116 countries. It does not include the United States or Australia.

In 2017, someone published Ciphr customer information online, including email addresses and unique IMEI numbers.

Many users of the encrypted phone industry have been in turmoil following the revelation that Anom, a relatively popular firm, was secretly run by the FBI for years. The FBI and a confidential human source (CHS) worked to attach an extra encryption key to each message sent by Anom devices, letting authorities essentially look over the shoulder and read the communications of organized crime groups. Australian authorities were also heavily involved in the operation, first seeding around 50 devices into the criminal underground as part of a beta test, and then arresting a wave of Anom users earlier this year.

In July Motherboard published an analysis of one of the Anom devices after obtaining one from the secondary market. 

Both the FBI and the Australian Federal Police declined to comment on Ciphr's recent changes.

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