The Australian Federal Police (AFP) have seized more than 1,000 mobile phones as part of a global crackdown on encryption technology allegedly used by criminals to organise drug imports, extortions and murders.
The AFP has been working with the FBI and other authorities to target Phantom Secure, a Canadian company that secretly sold up to 10,000 modified BlackBerry smartphones to Australians.
Earlier this week, the FBI arrested the head of Phantom Secure, Vincent Ramos, and charged him with racketeering activity involving gambling, money laundering and drug trafficking.
Meanwhile in Australia, the AFP raided 19 properties in Australia, seizing the phones as well as cash and drugs.
The raids took place in New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria and South Australia; one man was arrested in Victoria and charged with drug offenses.
Phantom Secure takes BlackBerry devices, strips out the cameras, microphones, GPS navigation and other features, and installs encrypted messaging software, making them difficult for law enforcement to crack.
AFP Assistant Commissioner Neil Gaughan said the encrypted phones were being used by a range of organised crime groups across the country.
“Phantom Secure has been used in Australia for between three and five years by all high-level organised crime groups in Australia,” he said.
“Anyone involved in high-level criminality, from extortions, to kidnapping and drug importations and even contracts for hire killings have been using Phantom Secure to communicate with a view that they have been able to hide their communications from law enforcement.”
Police said Phantom Secure sold a total of 20,000 devices around the world and half of them ended up in Australia.
‘These devices are not cheap’
Assistant Commissioner Gaughan said the crackdown would disrupt criminal organisations around the world.
“In the last three years, pretty much across the entire globe, encrypted platforms have been taken down,” he said.
“So the message for criminals around the world is regardless of what platform you moved to and what platform you think is secure, there are no guarantees.
“Law enforcement will work internationally and domestically to bring those systems down.”
Police said that criminals paid up to $50,000 per year to use the phones and had to be introduced by other Phantom Secure users to join the network.
Assistant Commissioner Gaughan said there was no evidence that suspected terrorists or extremists groups based in Australia had used the phones.
“These devices are not cheap. There is nothing to indicate that Phantom Secure has been used by any of our national security targets,” he said.
Phantom Secure allegedly built an international client base of criminals.
Macquarie University criminologist Vince Hurley said Australian criminals would quickly move to other encrypted devices now that the Phantom Secure network had been shut down.
“Once the BlackBerry has had its day, then for sure there will be a new phone or new encryption that will come up and there’s multiple combinations of encryptions, thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions that could be used,” he said.
However, AFP Assistant Commissioner Gaughan said police were already investigating other encrypted devices.
“It’s inevitable that people will move on to other services but we know where those services are going to be and I’m not going to name those services but the owners of those services and the people who want to use them need to be put on notice and they will be brought to justice,” he said.