The criminal world relies on private communication to keep their businesses afloat and key players out of cuffs. You might know this if you've ever texted a drug dealer who's told you to write in code or download Wickr. But serious shot-callers won’t settle for just encrypted apps. They want phones with top-tier security such as Silent Circle’s Blackphone, CipherTalk, or the more controversial Phantom Secure BlackBerry.
Phantom Secure is a canadian company that converts BlackBerry phones into military-grade encrypted devices. The company strips the camera, microphones, and GPS, then installs Phantom's custom software that routes all data through its servers in Panama and Hong Kong—nations the company describes as “uncooperative” with law enforcement.
Last month, the CEO of Phantom secure, Vincent Ramos, allegedly provided custom encrypted BlackBerrys to the Sinaloa drug cartel and was subsequently charged by the FBI.
The key accusation was that Phantom Secure have deliberately created a product that facilitates crime—a point inferred by their marketing campaign which romanticised gang culture. Before their website was taken down, The Phantom Secure About page defended their practice with a quote from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. “Surveillance threatens individual rights—including privacy, freedom of expression and association—and inhibits the free functioning of a vibrant civil society.”
Following Ramos’ arrest, the Australian Federal Police targeted people using Phantoms in Australia and seized over 1,000 phones allegedly used by criminals to orchestrate drug trafficking, extortion, or murder. And according to the FBI, out of 20,000 Phantom Secure Blackberrys in circulation around the world, roughly 10,000 were used in Australia.
I met a distributor of the endangered Phantom BlackBerry through a mutual contact. Antonio* is a 26-year-old self-described entrepreneur. He was wearing Louis Vuitton sneakers, a matching red tracksuit, diamond earrings, and had a high skin-fade with a razor Ronaldo line. He rolled up the sleeve of his jacket and revealed a Vendetta mask tattoo, before shuffling through his Gucci messenger bag and passing me a BlackBerry. “Here’s a souvenir," he told me. "It’s passed its used-by date though.”
VICE sat down with Antonio to discuss the ethics and sales tactics of his job.
VICE: Hey man how did you get into this line of work?
Antonio: To be honest, I was running cocaine back and forth from Adelaide. I was young and stupid. I landed a high paying job as a driver through a guy I met at the bar I worked at. The supplier was also the contact for the BBs [BlackBerrys]. We got talking and he was actually a really switched on guy who just hated the fucking government. He doesn’t even do drugs or party. He grew up without a dad, his old man had been locked up for growing weed for the Coffin Cheaters [motorcycle club]. And we had fun drinking Blue Label and watching YouTube videos about corruption in politics, government surveillance, and hacking in general.
Don’t you think it’s ironic that you talk about government surveillance, but you’re actually committing crime, which is why they have surveillance?
The software was actually developed for corporations and bankers on Wall Street. In America, everyone’s tapping each other's phones and emails to get insights into the kinds of moves their competition are pulling. The government don’t like what we do because we are making money they can’t control. What does a cocaine addict look like? You and me. Lawyers, bankers, doctors, retail shop assistants, your mum after one too many cosmos. And why is the government pissed off about it? Because they can’t control it. They don’t feel comfortable taxing it because it fucks with their closet Christian beliefs. The world is developing and evolving at a rate they can’t predict, and we are cashing in on it.
So how did you get into the Phantom business?
I built trust with my contact, and he put me in charge of his buyers in Melbourne. I was selling the phones for between $2,500 and $3,000, and there was the option of recharging every six months. But most people just buy a new one every 6 months. The first guy I met was a lawyer, working some high profile cases, and his clients paid so they could have discrete contact at all times. The lawyer put me onto a few of his clients that wanted secure communication and it all spiralled from there.
Is there a screening process. How do you do background checks?
We rely on trust. Everyone I worked with was referred to by someone that knew someone. You would be pretty stupid to fuck over your own lawyer. But obviously if I was suss on anyone being involved in paedophilia or murders and shit like that, I just wouldn’t go near them.
Was the lawyer your biggest client?
Nah, motorcycle clubs were. They are constantly harassed by the cops and under surveillance, so some clubs get all their members BlackBerrys so they can organise motorcycle runs and throw crazy parties without being raided by the police. Everyone makes out like they're organised syndicates, but they’re not. They might push a bit of gear here and there, but the real players wouldn’t have anything to do with bikies. I’ve met a few old school Italians who use BlackBerrys. They dress like smart businessmen and have offices on Collins Street. They hate bikies, they don't wear gold chains and they are really fucking serious.
Well that's all very good, but dozens of murders have allegedly been orchestrated via BlackBerry phones. What are your thoughts on that?
I offer a service. I’m not a consultant that needs to know your business, and trust me the guys buying the phones don’t want to tell me their business either. If I sell you a baseball bat. I’m hoping you are going to use it to play baseball. Not batter a bloke across the head until you knock him off. If I saw the worst in everyone, I wouldn’t make any money. Do you think McDonald's gives a fuck about what they put into your body? I’m not going to pretend to be a soft-cock, this is the real world and crime happens. If you think crime happens because people can communicate privately, you are incredibly delusional. And if that’s the case, should computers just monitor all the conversations we ever have in case anyone was ever thinking about committing a crime? If you have a problem with crime, don’t take drugs, don’t pick and choose. You like snorting your nose away on the weekend but have a cry whenever someone gets shot. The government has made violence a by-product of drugs by making them illegal, It’s got nothing to do with private communication.
Look, I’m still not totally convinced the company separates itself from crime.
The argument is this: if we are threatened about the potential for a crime to be committed, is it ethical to spy on them if it means we might prevent that crime from occurring? Freedom relies on civil liberties and it’s those liberties that I make my money from. That’s capitalism. Also, it says more about humans that if we create something that allows free communication, that it gets exploited for crime. That says more about us as a society. But it is so important that we have a space for that. And by the way, I’m currently in conversation with other companies that are keen to snatch up the Australian market.
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*Name has been changed