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It looks like there actually is still a market for BlackBerry phones: Organized crime

Published Mar 12th, 2018 5:09PM EDT
iPhone vs. BlackBerry

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iPhone is usually the first example that comes up whenever someone talks about encrypted smartphones and the law enforcement’s inability to crack that encryption. That’s because years ago, Apple made privacy and security two core features of its hardware and software products — but iOS devices aren’t the only encrypted smartphones you can buy these days.

In fact, the FBI has just busted the CEO of a company that’s been raking in millions of dollars by selling tens of thousands of customized BlackBerry smartphones across the globe. These specialized BlackBerry phones meant to avoid surveillance, and they appear to be highly coveted devices in the world of organized crime.

Vincent Ramos’s Canada-based Phantom is the company that has allegedly been making special BlackBerry handsets for criminals. These devices lack microphones, cameras, and even GPS antennas. There’s no internet browsing and no regular messenger apps preinstalled, according to a heavily redacted FBI complaint shared by Motherboard.

Phantom installs Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) software to send encrypted messages and devices can be wiped remotely if they’re seized by authorities.

Members of the Sinaloa drug cartel are apparently among Phantom’s customers, as well as the “upper echelon members” of transnational criminal groups. The devices are usually sold in Mexico, Cuba, Venezuela, and to the Hells Angels gang. According to the FBI, some 20,000 Phantom devices are in use worldwide, half of them in Australia. Phantom, meanwhile, has pulled in tens of millions of dollars of revenue from sales of these modified BlackBerry phones.

It was the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) that purchased Phantom devices posing as drug traffickers. That’s how law enforcement found out that messages are encrypted, and those devices have been created to support, among other things, drug trafficking. Furthermore, the RCMP discovered that the phones can be wiped remotely, the FBI complaint says.

The complaint filed in the Southern District of California charges Ramos with racketeering conspiracy to conduct enterprise affairs, as well as conspiracy to distribute narcotics, and aiding and abetting. The complaint also says that the company was specifically created to facilitate criminal activity.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.