DOJ Says Encryption Is Just For Criminals As It Goes After Another Secure Phone Purveyor

from the dark-mode-engaged dept

The DOJ has indicted another company for supposedly making it easier for criminals to elude law enforcement. The true target, though, isn't the company whose principals have been indicted, but encryption itself.

A couple of years ago the DOJ decided to bring RICO charges against Phantom Secure, a cellphone provider that catered to the criminal element with "uncrackable" phones/messaging services built on existing Blackberry hardware/software.

The FBI approached Phantom Secure, asking for an encryption backdoor that would allow it to snoop on its customers. Phantom Secure declined the FBI's advances. Its phones -- originally marketed to professionals desirous of additional security -- were soon marketed to criminals, a market sector that truly valued the security options offered by Phantom.

But rejecting the FBI and selling to criminals causes problems. The DOJ went after Phantom Secure, arresting the owner and charging him with a bunch of RICO and RICO-adjacent crimes.

It is happening again. The DOJ has decided encryption is a crime when companies offering encrypted communications choose to sell to people the DOJ considers to be criminals.

Here's the DOJ's portrayal of its crime-fighting efforts -- one supported by people who rarely find a sandwich they don't think can be criminally charged.

A federal grand jury today returned an indictment against the Chief Executive Officer and an associate of the Canada-based firm Sky Global on charges that they knowingly and intentionally participated in a criminal enterprise that facilitated the transnational importation and distribution of narcotics through the sale and service of encrypted communications devices.  

Jean-Francois Eap, Sky Global’s Chief Executive Officer, and Thomas Herdman, a former high-level distributor of Sky Global devices, are charged with a conspiracy to violate the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). Warrants were issued for their arrests today.

But here's where it gets sketchy. The DOJ is basically trying to hold a phone provider responsible for the criminal acts of its customers. In order to do that, it needs to depict encryption as an unnecessary evil that serves mainly to allow criminals to escape justice.

According to the indictment, Sky Global’s devices are specifically designed to prevent law enforcement from actively monitoring the communications between members of transnational criminal organizations involved in drug trafficking and money laundering. As part of its services, Sky Global guarantees that messages stored on its devices can and will be remotely deleted by the company if the device is seized by law enforcement or otherwise compromised.

"Or otherwise compromised." There are plenty of non-criminal reasons to want to remotely wipe a phone that has ended up in the hands of someone other than its owner. Some of those reasons are ones even the DOJ finds legitimate, like the protection of trade secrets. But in this case, the DOJ only sees an evil that must be stopped. And the fact that Sky Global's market share is so small it amounts to a rounding error isn't stopping the DOJ from attempting to make the company pay for the sins of some of its users.

There are at least 70,000 Sky Global devices in use worldwide, including in the United States. The indictment alleges that for more than a decade, Sky Global has generated hundreds of millions of dollars in profit by facilitating the criminal activity of transnational criminal organizations and protecting these organizations from law enforcement.

Allegations are just that: allegations. Sky Global may have had some legitimate customers who felt vanilla phone offerings by Google, Apple, and a host of Android-based manufacturers weren't secure enough, but those people's concerns don't matter when criminals are also using the same phones to conduct criminal activity.

The real enemy is encryption, according to the DOJ. The DOJ says preventing law enforcement from "actively monitoring communications" is its own evil, even while multiple messaging services now offer end-to-end encryption that prevents law enforcement from listening in. This is the foot in the door. If the FBI and DOJ can make enough noise about a company that supposedly marketed its product to criminals, it can make further inroads towards demonizing encryption as a threat to the security of the nation, if not an aider and abettor of criminal activity.

This is the ongoing PR war being fought by our government against a feature that provides more security to phone users. And it's being done by an agency that has yet to be completely honest about how much of a problem encryption actually poses to criminal investigations. For that reason alone, the DOJ's accusations shouldn't be granted credence. Its efforts to undermine the safety of millions of non-criminal phone users shouldn't be ignored either, because it's clear at this point the security concerns of the American public mean nothing to it.

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Filed Under: backdoors, criminal, doj, encryption, fbi, jean-francois eap, rico, secure phones, thomas herdman
Companies: sky global

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  1. icon
    Peter (profile), 15 Mar 2021 @ 1:45pm

    Encryption Is Just For Criminals

    'Criminals' is not a nice word to use to describe the US Army and other government agencies who use encryption to protect classified information.

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