The people behind a company that hacked Samsung and BlackBerry phones to make them more secure, have been indicted for allegedly conspiring with drug cartels to help them evade law enforcement and sell narcotics.
Phantom Secure, a Canada-based firm, sold Samsung and BlackBerry devices that had been modified with a higher encryption. This made it difficult for the authorities to trace drug traffickers.
Vincent Ramos, the CEO of the company, along with four associates were accused on Thursday by the Department of Justice (DOJ) of "knowingly and intentionally conspiring with criminal organizations by providing them with the technological tools to evade law enforcement and obstruct justice while committing transnational drug trafficking."
It's the first time the U.S. government has targeted a firm on such charges.
BlackBerry and Samsung have not been accused of any wrongdoing.
"When criminals go dark, and law enforcement cannot monitor their phones or access evidence, crimes cannot be solved, criminals cannot be stopped and lives can be lost," U.S. Attorney Adam Braverman, said in a press release on Thursday.
He added that the communication network provided by Phantom Secure will be disabled.
Ramos was taken into custody in Bellingham, Washington, on March 7. Ramos made his first appearance in the Western District of Washington and will face charges in San Diego. The remaining four defendants are fugitives, the DOJ said.
The other defendants are Kim Augustus Rodd, Younes Nasri, Michael Gamboa and Christopher Poquiz.
Phantom Secure also guaranteed the destruction of evidence contained within a device if it was compromised, either by an informant or because it fell into the hands of law enforcement, the DOJ said, citing court documents.
The indictment alleges that Phantom Secure has generated around $80 million in annual revenues since 2008 and "facilitated drug trafficking, obstruction of justice, and violent crime around the world."
Law enforcement in the U.S., Australia, Canada, Hong Kong and Thailand were involved in the arrest of Ramos.
Over the past two weeks, Australian and Canadian police along with the U.S. authorities carried out 25 searches of houses and offices of Phantom Secure in various locations across the world. Police seized servers, computers, cellphones as well as drugs and weapons. Over 150 domains and licenses used as part of the encrypted network were also seized along with bank accounts.
There were up to 20,000 Phantom Secure devices in use worldwide, according to court documents.
The charges and allegations contained in an indictment or complaint are merely accusations, and the defendants are considered innocent unless and until proven guilty, the DOJ noted.