Tag Archives: Eavesdropping

Gangsters with Blackberry’s & the Upsurge in “Intelligence Led” Busts

A sensational story about the criminal use of encryption appeared across social media this week like it was a scoop. It wasn’t. But that’s the way it was portrayed.

For the uninformed it played directly into the narrative that encryption is bad and overwhelmingly used by those withquestionable motives or downright evil intentions.

So What Happened?

The headlines varied but basically Vincent Ramos the boss of Phantom Secure, a company whose website declares that it supplies “THE WORLDS MOST TRUSTED COMMUNICATION SERVICE” was arrested in California.

The company supplies or supplied a modded and allegedly zero knowledge handset which is or was it claimed “Simple, effective and easy to use while highly secure, … recognized by government agencies and cyber experts as “Uncrackable” “.

All utter rubbish of course but if you are selling a high performance sports car to a guy who struggles with a gear change on a bicycle then who is to contradict you?

Imagine! Organised crime were using encrypted phones to communicate and those encrypted phones were being supplied by commercial outfits who knew.

Scoop? No.

“Buyer Beware” — What Did Phantom Secure Sell?

Phantom

The sales bumf declared that the “Classic Phantom Secure Encrypted BlackBerry Device”, apparently proven “year after year”, (by whom is unstated) was light weight and easy to use and provided end to end encrypted messaging, in theory. The package included:

  1. Modified and Locked Down Device
  2. Secure Encrypted Device to Device Encrypted Messaging
  3. Anonymous Communication
  4. International Roaming
  5. 6 months Subscription Included

The “Phantom Secure Android Edition” made the laughable statement that it provided unmatched secure enterprise mobility from BlackBerry and the “best at rest” security on an Android KNOX device, which communicated over the Phantom Secure service.

Summarising, the company promised “totally anonymous, device-to-device encrypted communications, brought to you by a globally trusted and recognized secure communications service.

The problem with that is that it was not brought to the companies customers by anything approaching a globally trusted and recognized secure communications service because it was hosted on Blackberry Enterprise Service servers.

Blackberry executive chairman and chief executive officer John Chen recently said “Today’s encryption has got to the point where it’s rather difficult, even for ourselves, to break it, to break our own encryption… it’s not an easily breakable thing. We will only attempt to do that if we have the right court order. The fact that we will honor the court order doesn’t imply we could actually get it done.

This Phantom Secure Android version included:

  1. Modified and Locked Down Device
  2. Secure Encrypted Device to Device Encrypted Messaging
  3. Anonymous Communication
  4. KNOX hardware and software integrated device security
  5. Prive Encrypted Chat
  6. Compatible messaging with BB7 Devices
  7. International Roaming
  8. 6 months Subscription Included

Worthless Disclaimers & Hollow Promises

Phantom Secure, and many like them, take care to make various disclaimers which they seem to think are a get out of jail freecard and state in their “Legal Compliance” section that:

We are a law-abiding company that is permitted to deliver encrypted communication services to our clients in order for them to protect their communications, without having the ability to decrypt their communications.”

The statement in no way ensures that these kind of suppliers cannot be indicted on charges. What it does do is give the impression to prospective customers that the company can in some way guarantee that even in the face of a warrant they do not possess the ability to compromise the historic or future communications of their customer base either intentionally or unintentionally.

But in the case of Blackberry that is just not true. It is public knowledge since 2016 that Operation Clemenza by the RCMP allowed Canadian investigators to access consumer-grade phones from Blackberry where the decryption key is in the company’s (RIM) possession.

BlackBerry, however, also offers the option to run their BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) which allows clients to run their own network of phones, and keep possession of their own decryption key. And this is what Phantom Secure were doing but as far back as January 2016 Dutch police said that they were able to read encrypted messages sent on the custom, security-focused BlackBerry devices.

Also in December 2015 in the article “The Encryption Debate: a Way Forward,” on the official Blackberry blog INSIDE Blackberry the company wrote that “privacy and security form the crux of everything we do. However,our privacy commitmentdoes not extend to criminals.”

But isn’t criminality established after due process has taken place? Warrants do not prove criminality even if there is probable cause? Are RIM Blackberry qualified to make the distinctions?

Regardless they sold their BES products based on the claim that they would never be called upon to make the distinction because they had designed a product that was totally secure.

There are products which can guarantee this and even in the face of warrants are unable to provide logs, metadata, or encryption keys. But BES cannot. There lies one of the many significant problems that Mr. Ramos faces.

The disclaimer continues …

“Our service does not require personal information and has no back doors. In providing such a service we do understand that there will be a very small number of people that may use our service to do activities we do not support. We do not condone the use of our service for any type of illegal activities and if known we will terminate the use of our service without notice.”

“Considering this, requests for the contents of communications may arise from government agencies, which would require a valid search warrant from an agency with proper jurisdiction over Phantom Secure.”

“However, our response to such requests will be the content and identity of our clients are not stored on our server and that the content is encrypted data, which is indecipherable.”

“Our company was founded as a means to provide businesses and people the opportunity to communicate in private in this modern technological age. Unfortunately there will be people that will use this technology for acts we do not condone but this should not be the reason why our universal human right to privacy should be taken away.

Mr. Ramos & Explaining the Unexplainable

The very unlucky or very silly Mr. Ramos, depending on which way you look at it, has now been charged with racketeering activity involving gambling, money laundering, and drug trafficking. I hope Mr. Ramos enjoyed the spoils while he could because he is in a very tight spot now, one way or the other.

US authorities have argued that Phantom Secure operated explicitly to enable organised crime groups to evade detection while planning major crimes. Phantom allegedly built an international client base of criminals by taking BlackBerry devices, stripping out the camera, microphone, GPS navigation and other features, and installing encryption software, making them difficult for law enforcement to crack. He was arrested in California, amid claims that his firms products’ were allegedly linked to Australian murders and drug trafficking.” [This extract is from “Phantom Secure boss arrested in US, amid products’ suspected links to Australian murders” By Dan Oakes, ABC Australia, Monday 12th March 2018]

Think about that statement “Making them difficult for law enforcement to crack.”. Hmmmm. If Mr. Ramos makes bail I predict that one of the first questions that he will be asked by some of his more colourful customers is how exactly does that statement sit with the claims the company made on their website. At best he over-promised and under-delivered. [For posterity I have preserved the Phantom Secure website before it inevitably goes dark.]

These dog and bones went for between USD1500–USD2000 a piece with 6 months shelf life and Phantom Secure had 20k subscribers. Do the figures! If you lost one then you had to buy a new one, no discounts.

Isn’t it amazing that a market segment of normally paranoid individuals are willing to buy an expensive technology that they do not understand from a supplier that they do not know and then proceed to drop all normal “opsec”, if you could call it that, and openly plan the spectaculars that led to these arrests.

The Recent Upsurge in Success for “Intelligence Led” Operations

In the fullness of time it will be very interesting to see how the evidence to construct this indictment was acquired, what paper trail was left by the company showing their modus operandi, the promises versus the actual reality of what the company claimed it could deliver, and whether these claims as and of themselves are seen by the Courts as a marketing tool solely intended to appeal specifically to a certain base, namely those with criminal intentions, and how that can be proven.

The story also raises interesting questions on a topic that I have been researching now for some time – parallel construction. Over the last three years there has been a staggering increase in seizures of drug shipments and the foiling of multiple gangland assassinations attributed to “intelligence led” operations.

Since the late noughties Blackberry handsets have been the comms weapon of choice for organised crime even though they have been widely discredited. There is a school of thought that outfits such as Phantom Secure have been tolerated and let exist by law enforcement because they were such a rich source of warrantless intel.

But now that even the most clueless crims are moving away from the platform it seems that it has been decided that it is time to bring in all the “CEO’s” of these secure comms companies. Their usefulness has been exhausted.

Some of the coverage in recent days has claimed that Ramos is co-operating. My guess is that LE wish to use his arrest to turn him into a “co-operating witness” and as such provide them with what looks like legal access to the Phantom Secureservers.

In that way all of that juicy warrantless surveillance can be seen to have been legitimately obtained intelligence and the clientbase, big fish and small, can be hoovered up en-masse or turned into assets.

As for the stuff that has gone before — well, it didn’t become an issue at the trials so no need to revisit that. It was credited to HUMINT in the shape of informants who could not be named in order to protect their identity.

The Inevitability of Licensing

I have no particular insight into the innocence or guilt of Mr. Ramos in this case. I do not know whether he overtly solicited criminal clients in the full knowledge of their business and their need for secure comms in order to evade detection in a criminal enterprise.

What I do know is that if you are legally recorded saying:

“Hey man, I sell these phones that are bullet proof and can’t be hacked or eavesdropped (“even though that is not the case”) and I know you value your security and privacy because your foe is law enforcement and your trade is illegal and I can sell you these phones for $$$$’s and you can ply your trade without fear of discovery

….. then you are nicked mate.

Mr. Ramos is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. He is finished every which way he turns.

The movie Layer Cake has a rich seam of relevant content to illustrate my point. In that movie Colm Meaney explains to Daniel Craig’s character XXXX his Cornelian dilemma as a result of being present during an incident:

“Listen, son. Let me explain something to you. Freddie’s in intensive care with a bit of a brain haemorrhage. You were there at the scene. That’s called joint venture. Now, if Freddie dies, you’re either in the dock with Morty… …or you’re in the witness box putting him away. Think about that.

The outcome of this matter is likely to produce significant and wider repercussions for the providers of secure communications solutions in general.

This case and those to follow are a preparatory step for compulsory licensing for purveyors of private encryption systems. They offer an antidote to the privacy objections about backdoors and present a far more pragmatic solution to giving law enforcement access to encrypted communications than systems that are “thoughtfully design” as was recently and ridiculously suggested by FBI Director, Christopher Wray.

The provision of private secure comms solutions will evolve to the same standard of licensing as is applied to firearms sales. Such companies will be required to be licensed before offering the service and when selling licenses I guess that pre-qualification checks on the purchaser will be required too. Purchasing a license will probably be enough to claim “probable cause” under FISA rules in the US. It takes little enough justification to eavesdrop as it stands.

Undermining the Argument for Un-Compromised Encryption

The arguments in support of generally available un-compromised encryption services are devalued by the incorrect parallels that the opponents of encryption make between them and the Phantom Secure case.

It plays directly into the narrative that the host of encryption luddites in law enforcement, government, and the intelligence community peddle daily as they seek to justify back-dooring or banning encryption products.

Those who oppose encryption use illogical extrapolations when making their arguments — “the bad guy used encryption … therefore the crime was committed because of encryption”. They use the special case to undermine the general case.

The Phantom Secure case will be used as another example of why encryption is bad. But the Phantom Secure case is not about privacy or encryption rights or freedom of speech.

If there is even the slightest question that the provider of hardware, software, and any other “wares” knowingly supplies them for assisting the commission of an offence or even suspects that they will be used in one then it is aiding and abetting and all the other bits and pieces that have been included on Mr. Ramos’s much publicised indictment.

References and Bibliography

  1. https://www.justice.gov/usao-sdca/pr/chief-executive-and-four-associates-indicted-conspiring-global-drug-traffickers
  2. https://motherboard.vice.com/amp/en_us/article/a34b7b/phantom-secure-sinaloa-drug-cartel-encrypted-blackberry?__twitter_impression=true
  3. https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/bme5w3/customer-data-from-encrypted-phone-company-ciphr-has-been-dumped-online
  4. http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-43425333
  5. https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/mbpyea/encrochat-secure-phone-hacking-video
  6. https://www.eff.org/nsa-spying/state-secrets-privilege
  7. https://www.peerlyst.com/posts/the-rogues-gallery-of-encryption-luddites-graham-penrose
  8. https://www.peerlyst.com/posts/peertalk-tm-privacy-vs-national-security-panel-questions-for-session-1-graham-penrose
  9. https://www.peerlyst.com/posts/all-blackberry-messages-can-be-decrypted-using-global-encryption-key-valery-marchuk
  10. https://www.peerlyst.com/posts/would-you-hire-a-locksmith-you-dont-trust
  11. https://www.peerlyst.com/posts/boss-of-a-company-that-supplied-encrypted-phones-arrested-andrew-commons
  12. https://www.hrw.org/report/2018/01/09/dark-side/secret-origins-evidence-us-criminal-cases
  13. https://www.peerlyst.com/posts/canadian-law-enforcement-obtained-blackberry-global-encryption-key-hega-geoffroy
  14. https://www.peerlyst.com/posts/android-blackberry-spyware-used-in-india-attacks-or-securityweek-com-hega-geoffroy
  15. https://nakedsecurity.sophos.com/2016/01/13/police-say-they-can-crack-blackberry-pgp-encrypted-email/
  16. https://www.theregister.co.uk/2016/01/13/blackbery_pgp_riddle/
  17. https://www.v3.co.uk/v3-uk/news/2441666/blackberry-pgp-handsets-cracked-by-dutch-cyber-cops
  18. https://www.makeuseof.com/tag/one-reason-get-blackberry-2016-security/
  19. https://nakedsecurity.sophos.com/2016/04/26/police-seize-network-behind-encrypted-blackberry-pgp-devices/
  20. https://www.itgovernance.co.uk/blog/phone-evidence-remotely-wiped-in-police-stations/
  21. http://www.zdnet.com/article/police-hack-pgp-server-with-3-6-million-messages-from-organized-crime-blackberrys/
  22. https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20160118/07441433368/blackberry-which-said-it-wouldnt-protect-criminals-assures-criminals-phones-are-still-secure.shtml
  23. https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/are-encrypted-phones-allowing-criminals-to-get-away-with-murder-20150523-gh82gv.html
  24. http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/criminals-love-the-blackberry-s-wiretap-proof-ways-police-1.815031
  25. https://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/crime/cops-struggling-crack-encrypted-phones-6962815
  26. https://www.thedailybeast.com/meet-danny-the-guy-selling-encrypted-phones-to-organized-crime
  27. https://www.gizmodo.com.au/2018/03/the-fbi-busts-phantom-secure-ceo-for-allegedly-selling-encrypted-phones-to-gangs-drug-cartels/
  28. https://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/crime/cops-struggling-crack-encrypted-phones-6962815
  29. http://uk.businessinsider.com/methods-that-police-use-to-catch-deep-web-drug-dealers-2016-8?r=UK&IR=T
  30. https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2011/oct/30/metropolitan-police-mobile-phone-surveillance
  31. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-38183819
  32. https://www.techrepublic.com/article/fbi-nabs-ceo-of-encrypted-phone-company-for-sales-to-cartels-gangs/
  33. https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/nz7e3z/decrypted-pgp-blackberry-messages-helped-convict-uk-gun-smugglers
  34. https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2018/03/fbi-again-calls-for-magical-solution-to-break-into-encrypted-phones/
  35. http://scholars.wlu.ca/etd/1758/
  36. https://www.digitaltrends.com/mobile/phantom-secure-ceo-arrested/?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter

ENDS.

Does Legislation Stifle Innovation?

(From an article originally published in July 2017 on my peerlyst blog)

Does legislation stifle innovation? No. Why? Because it legislates in “catch up mode” mostly and on those rare occasions when the legislators do see something coming in advance (examples? I don’t have any actually) – then they fail to implement the legislation or put in place checks and balances to monitor compliance.

Legislators are better at legislating for the abuse of data – the IP Act in the UK – in favour of mass surveillance and warrantless omnipresent spying and eavesdropping. It’s a catch all bucket – much easier than putting your back into it and figuring it out with Privacy, Civil Liberty and Human Rights in mind.

Legislators are looking to heavily regulate IoT. One wonders what their approach will be since they have failed or chose to ignore (more likely), it would appear, to legislate and police the most basic elements of Data Protection despite some of the first statutes being enacted (in Europe) as far back as 1986.

Now we have the kerfuffle of the NIS Directive (compelling member states to “be appropriately equipped, e.g. via a Computer Security Incident Response Team (CSIRT) and a competent national NIS authority” – another agency just when we thought that the ones that we had were as bad as the disjointed un-joined up implementation of policy could get) and GDPR (which contains the bizarrely general statement in Clause 4 that “The processing of personal data should be designed to serve mankind”) – good luck implementing that.

Data Protection legislation for much of the intervening period was “lip-service” and PR driven. The DATA PROTECTION ACT, 1988 was publicised by the Irish government as an innovative “first of its kind” legislation that would set the Republic of Ireland apart and create a “privacy regulated” USP for RoI as an FDI (foreign direct investment) destination.

The IDA boasts on their website “We favour green lights over red tape, which is why we are one of the best countries in the world for ease of doing business (Forbes). New business is welcomed and supported by the flow of talent coming from our schools, universities and abroad, to work for high-performing companies across a range of cutting-edge sectors.”

What this really means is that regulation in Ireland with respect to Data Protection and Central Bank governance (both having a direct impact on the operations of the likes of EU headquartered tech giants based in Ireland – Google, eBay,Facebook, Twitter, HubSpot etc … pick a name – they are based in Ireland somewhere) was all about accommodating whatever these firms asked for, with scant or little regard to what the privacy protections in the legislation actually dictated in terms of consumer / end user protection.

Put the following statement in front of your local Data Protection commission and ask them to respond with respect to their view on the best way to protect the consumer while enabling innovation – prepare for an answer characterised by vanilla, non-committal prose peppered with out of context TLA’s.

“Dear Data Protection Commissioner, How Does Your Office Propose To Balance Classically-Conceived Privacy Concepts In Light Of The Business Imperative Of Providing The End User With Contextual Richness?”

The Office of the Data Protection Commission and the Central Bank of Ireland are widely regarded as complicit in the wholesale abuse of the data protection, privacy and tax obligations of tech companies operating in the country.

Understaffed, under-skilled and under-whelming, these outfits have presided over some of the most spectacular breaches of these obligations.

Now, they seek to add to their NP-Complete task and their ever expanding skills gap – the area of IoT regulation.

They will be tasked with creating law to govern how companies should implement security protocols and data protection measures to control the people who use the information generated by IoT (or those who seek to illegally acquire it) and the application of Big Data, IoT, AI, data analytics, and machine learning.

I have no faith that Ireland or Europe will stay on the edge of the curve of innovation in order to regulate its expansion in a controlled and understood manner. But I could be wrong. Do you think that I am wrong? I would love to hear counter arguments to my usual cynical stance on these issues.

ENDS

“Bypassing” Encryption is the same as “Breaking” Encryption

According to the Vault 7 WikiLeaks data the CIA made phone malware that can read your private chats without breaking encryption.

Anyone with half a clue always knew that the best way to subvert encryption was to bypass encryption as we at TMG Corporate Services have always done. From our blog post Am I Being Surveilled? on 29th March 2016:

Still – the point is made I think – visual intercepts are economically viable even for local LE – it’s just an ultra low light wifi enabled pin-hole snake camera in the right spot. One above the driver and passenger seat belt brackets in a private vehicle is a good location (easy access to and plenty of space behind the plastic covering the B pillar to store the bits).

Five uninterrupted minutes and both are installed. Just wait for the target to take a Sunday drive and game on. Most people rest the handset on their lap while typing stationary in traffic or better still upright and in front or on top of the wheel when driving – using one hand – which gives a nice unobstructed keystroke by keystroke view of their typing activities.

Most successful hacks are low tech

Today I have seen a bunch of publications and experts trying to assure people that this is nothing to worry about. The purity of encryption is in tact. It is an academic point.

If you are in the business of handling sensitive data then don’t use your cell phone to transmit it. It’s that simple.

* In the hours since the documents were made available by WikiLeaks, a misconception was developed, making people believe the CIA “cracked” the encryption used by popular secure messaging software including Signal and WhatsApp.

WikiLeaks asserted that: “These techniques permit the CIA to bypass the encryption of WhatsApp, Signal, Telegram, Wiebo, Confide and Cloakman by hacking the “smart” phones that they run on and collecting audio and message traffic before encryption is applied.”

This statement by WikiLeaks made most people think that the encryption used by end-to-end encrypted messaging clients such as Signal and WhatsApp has been broken. No, it hasn’t. Instead, the CIA has tools to gain access to entire phones, which would of course “bypass” encrypted messaging apps because it fails all other security systems virtually on the phone, granting total remote access to the agency.

The WikiLeaks documents do not show any attack particular against Signal or WhatsApp, but rather the agency hijacks the entire phone and listens in before the applications encrypt and transmit information.

It’s like you are sitting in a train next to the target and reading his 2-way text conversation on his phone or laptop while he’s still typing, this doesn’t mean that the security of the app the target is using has any issue.

In that case, it also doesn’t matter if the messages were encrypted in transit if you are already watching everything that happens on the device before any security measure comes into play.

But this also doesn’t mean that this makes the issue lighter, as noted by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, “This incorrectly implies CIA hacked these apps/encryption. But the docs show iOS/Android are what got hacked—a much bigger problem.”

* From The Hacker News

ENDS

“All uR devICE r belong 2 US”, Vault 7, Weeping Angel, the CIA & Your Samsung TV

CIA malware and hacking tools are built by EDG (Engineering Development Group), a software development group within CCI (Center for Cyber Intelligence), a department belonging to the CIA’s DDI (Directorate for Digital Innovation). The DDI is one of the five major directorates of the CIA.

The attack against Samsung smart TVs was developed in cooperation with the United Kingdom’s MI5/BTSS.

The EDG is responsible for the development, testing and operational support of all backdoors, exploits, malicious payloads, trojans, viruses and any other kind of malware used by the CIA in its covert operations world-wide.

The increasing sophistication of surveillance techniques has drawn comparisons with George Orwell’s 1984, but “Weeping Angel”, developed by the CIA’s Embedded Devices Branch (EDB), which infests smart TVs, transforming them into covert microphones, is it’s most emblematic realization.

After infestation, Weeping Angel places the target TV in a ‘Fake-Off’ mode, so that the owner falsely believes the TV is off when it is on.

In ‘Fake-Off’ mode the TV operates as a bug, recording conversations in the room and sending them over the Internet to a covert CIA server.

ENDS

Extracted entirely from Vault 7: CIA Hacking Tools Revealed