back to article US govt indicted me because I make privacy tools, says crypto-chat app CEO accused of helping drug smugglers

The CEO of Sky Global – which sold encryption chat software with customized smartphones – has come out fighting after Uncle Sam charged him with knowingly assisting the international drug smuggling trade. “The indictment against me personally in the United States is an example of the police and the government trying to vilify …

  1. mikus

    So tomorrow Signal, Telegram?

    Of course encryption helps criminals, only the definition of criminal is fluid whether that pertains to Donald Trump or Pablo Escobar. If they're not harassing the non-commercial encrypted chats already, does that mean they already have backdoors in them?

    If I sell a rebranded chinese phone tomorrow with Signal on it, does that make me a criminal?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: So tomorrow Signal, Telegram?

      > If I sell a rebranded chinese phone tomorrow with Signal on it, does that make me a criminal?

      If you sold it to a drug dealer who uses it to evade detection while committing a crime - i.e. dealing drugs - then yes, you are an accomplice.

      At a minimum, by selling this phone, you profited from the illicit gains of a criminal enterprise. The drug dealer paid for this phone with his drug money. It will be very hard to prove that the phone was paid for by the drug dealer with money obtained from a legitimate enterprise.

      If you gave it away for free to the drug dealer, you aided a criminal in evading detection during the commission of a crime, because you installed Signal on it. Installing Signal has knowledge value - you know that Signal has strong encryption, which is why you installed it in the first place - and labor value - the manual effort of installing Signal. That also makes you an accomplice.

      Best course of action: don't sell, or donate, mobile phones to drug dealers.

      1. ecofeco Silver badge

        Re: So tomorrow Signal, Telegram?

        So the best to assume that everyone is criminal?

        Nice due process, there.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          FAIL

          Re: So tomorrow Signal, Telegram?

          > So the best to assume that everyone is criminal?

          Seriously, are you that dense?

          There is no assumption here. The phone was sold or given to a drug dealer. That's not an assumption, that's a fact.

          Do you understand the difference between assumption and fact?

          1. Diogenes

            Re: So tomorrow Signal, Telegram?

            The phone was sold or given to a drug dealer.

            So the local Tescos should be shut down, and the CEO arrested for accepting the proceeds of crime because the drug dealer paid for his/her/they shopping with the proceeds of crime especially, as, gasp!, that 5 kg of flour he/she/they purchased was used to cut the drugs?

            1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

              Re: So tomorrow Signal, Telegram?

              I misread that as Telcos which is even more pertinent. Should all the telcos be shut down because we might mutter something criminal or subversive into our phones?

          2. whitepines
            WTF?

            Re: So tomorrow Signal, Telegram?

            So how does one in fact determine that the potential buyer is not a drug dealer before the sale is made? Is there a clearing house of some sort to verify?

            Or, perhaps, does the concept of mens rea come in to play where even if the fact comes out later on that you inadvertently sold something to a criminal, you are not guilty of any crime since you did not knowingly do so?

            I sincerely hope we have not reached the point where everyone must be surveilled everywhere since everyone is assumed to be a criminal, and therefore any privacy-enhancing technology is unsafe to sell.

            1. big_D Silver badge
              Paris Hilton

              Re: So tomorrow Signal, Telegram?

              It is easy, you demand a reference from their employer. If the headed paper is from "A Drug Cartel", you know that he is up to no good.

              1. Claverhouse Silver badge

                Re: So tomorrow Signal, Telegram?

                Anyway, the stylish drug dealers insist on an Escobar phone with all the bling...

                .

                https://www.theregister.com/2019/12/03/escobar-fold-phone/

          3. Potemkine! Silver badge

            Re: So tomorrow Signal, Telegram?

            That's not an assumption, that's a fact.

            What that a fact for the people who sold the phone? Did they know the buyer was a drug dealer? Did the buyer tell them 'I'm in illegal activities, help me!' ?

            A suggestion to companies in encryption: add a legal disclaimer saying your products shouldn't be used for criminal activities, that you don't endorse these activities and everyone using your products to do so should denounce himself/herself to the government.

            1. You aint sin me, roit

              Know your customer

              "Are you a drug dealer?"

              "No"

              "OK, here's your phone... wanna buy some guns to go with that weapons grade crypto?"

              1. Anonymous Coward
                Anonymous Coward

                Re: Know your customer

                And what about the arms manufacturers? It must be clear to any gun supplier in the US that some of their products are being used for illegal purposes.

                1. TRT Silver badge

                  Re: Know your customer

                  Ah. But they’re licensed you see.

                2. keith_w

                  Re: Know your customer

                  It's also against U.S. law to hold gun manufacturers to blame for the use their product is put to.

                  1. MrDamage Silver badge

                    Re: Know your customer

                    The US has been classifying cryptography as a weapon in regards to sales or provisioning to "rogue states".

                    Therefore under both the 2nd, and 4th and 5th amendments, he should have his arse covered.

                3. Adelio Silver badge

                  Re: Know your customer

                  Ahhh, but there is the second amendement, firearms are for everyone, shoot away.......

                  1. Trigonoceps occipitalis

                    Re: Know your customer

                    @Adelio

                    Only if they are part of a well regulated militia, you know, like the Proud Boys.

            2. DS999 Silver badge
              Trollface

              Easy way to find out if they're a drug dealer

              Provide your price list not in dollars, euros or pounds, but in grams of cocaine.

          4. TRT Silver badge

            Re: So tomorrow Signal, Telegram?

            He needs a criminal lawyer.

            No. A criminal - lawyer.

            Right. Better call Saul!

          5. big_D Silver badge

            Re: So tomorrow Signal, Telegram?

            Can you prove that they the CEO knew the customer was a drug dealer?

            Did the customer announce, "hey, I'm a drug dealer, can I have a phone?" Or did he show him ID which showed his profession as being a drug dealer?

            1. Anonymous Coward
              FAIL

              Re: So tomorrow Signal, Telegram?

              > Can you prove that they the CEO knew the customer was a drug dealer?

              Yo, Genius - and your fellow Einsteins here!

              Do AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile or Sprint sell mobile phones with Signal - or any other kind of strong encryption - preinstalled?

              No, they don't.

              Why do you think that is?

              All the stories you read about the FBI getting all huffy and puffy with Apple because of their so-called strong privacy settings are just that: huffing and puffing for public consumption. The FBI can unlock and read iPhones just fine. That's just Apple's marketing hard at work.

              Android isn't even part of the discussion.

              Don't believe me? Go right ahead and run a real-life experiment. Go sell some smartphones with Signal - or any other kind of strong crypto preinstalled - on EBay. Don't forget to let us know how it went.

              1. MiguelC Silver badge
                Facepalm

                Re: So tomorrow Signal, Telegram?

                Do criminals use WhatsApp?

                Absolutely!

                Do telcos sell phones with WhatsApp pre-installed?

                ....

                1. Anonymous Coward
                  FAIL

                  Re: So tomorrow Signal, Telegram?

                  Does WhatsApp use strong encryption?

                  By strong encryption I mean the US Government's definition of strong encryption. Not yours.

                  Is WhatsApp purposely designed with intent of evading detection of criminal activity by a US Law Enforcement Agency?

                  I didn't think so.

                  1. JimboSmith Silver badge

                    Re: So tomorrow Signal, Telegram?

                    I thought WhatsApp used the Signal Protocol for their encryption, the same as Signal.

                    So ignoring that, are Silent Circle, their Blackphone range etc. Bittium, etc. phones are going to be targeted by the FBI? So online sellers such as this one Ebay Blackphone seller are likely going to be hassled? Odd then that this seller also appears to have a bricks and mortar shop too in Kensington: https://www.kickmobiles.com/contactus and a whole page of security focused phones and other devices. The luxury phone maker Vertu also included Silent Circle on their expensive phones. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jonmatonis/2013/02/21/silent-circle-and-vertu-partner-on-10000-phone/?sh=570850ef22ac

                  2. doublelayer Silver badge

                    Re: So tomorrow Signal, Telegram?

                    "Does WhatsApp use strong encryption? By strong encryption I mean the US Government's definition of strong encryption. Not yours."

                    Yes.

                    "Is WhatsApp purposely designed with intent of evading detection of criminal activity by a US Law Enforcement Agency?"

                    No. Is Signal? No. Was this? Hard to tell, but they'd need to prove it, you know. You can't just say "Criminals use it, therefore it was designed for them." You actually have to prove a statement like that.

                  3. CommanderGalaxian
                    Boffin

                    Re: So tomorrow Signal, Telegram?

                    Yes.

              2. This post has been deleted by its author

          6. EmilPer.

            Re: So tomorrow Signal, Telegram?

            "iPhone, Google Pixel, Blackberry, and Nokia handsets" ... "The phone was sold or given to a drug dealer. That's not an assumption, that's a fact."

            So, are Apple, Google, Blackberry and Nokia being indicted or something ?

          7. Sgt_Oddball Silver badge

            Re: So tomorrow Signal, Telegram?

            If you sell or give a device to a KNOWN drug dealer, whom you go out of your way to inform them that the device would aid in their business. Then yes. You have a point.

            But to sell or give a device to another person, with no intent other than to provide a device does not a criminal make.

            If that was truly the case then every honest gunshop in America would be closed down and the sales team arrested. Every car dealership shuttered to prevent death on the roads and if a shop so much as dared to sell nail clippers... Or worse a corkscrew, then throw them all in jail!

            There has be a limit, everything can be used in a dangerous way by those wishing to do harm, but should we give up everything because of possible misuse? If the tool is considered so dangerous then ban it's sale, or restrict it. But to declare a legal and legitimate business is aiding and abetting because of a chance of misuse seems heavy handed, ontop of lazy by those who should be doing a better job of catching the criminals in the first place.

          8. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

            Re: So tomorrow Signal, Telegram?

            "Do you understand the difference between assumption and fact?"

            Do you? Let's start with some of the basics. Everyone is assumed to be innocent until proved guilty by due process of law.

            Do you think that rule exists to protect the guilty? If so, you're wrong. It exists to protect the innocent. If you set it aside then we're all at risk.

            You may argue that it makes it hard work to proceed against criminals. I know, I was one of those working hard at it. Nevertheless, that's the way it should be.

            1. Anonymous Coward
              FAIL

              Re: So tomorrow Signal, Telegram?

              > Everyone is assumed to be innocent until proved guilty by due process of law.

              Do you understand the difference between charge, indictment, trial and verdict?

              The Canadian in question has been charged by the FBI and indicted by a Grand Jury based on the charges presented by the FBI to the Grand Jury.

              That does not imply, or establish, guilt. It only establishes that a Grand Jury has found that sufficient evidence has been provided, showing that a crime may have been committed.

              Pursuant to a Grand Jury indictment, the defendant has been remanded into custody. I.e. locked up. That is perfectly legal. This is not an automatic outcome, a federal judge has signed off on it.

              The Grand Jury's indictment now goes to trial. The defendant now has two options:

              - Plead Not Guilty. The outcome is that there will be a full trial by jury where the prosecution has burden of proof, and must establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

              - Plead Guilty. The outcome is that the proceedings move straight to sentencing, and there is no trial.

              Do you understand the differences between these four types of proceedings? Namely: Charge, Indictment, Trial and Verdict? It appears that you do not. You are confusing a charge with an indictment with a jury verdict.

              Perhaps you should familiarize yourself with the semantics of these terms before throwing ignorant comments around.

              1. Claverhouse Silver badge

                Re: So tomorrow Signal, Telegram?

                The fact that the arcane rituals of the American way of banging people up are followed is of no interest to non-Americans, nor in anyway 'fair' or in the interests of abstract justice.

              2. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

                Re: So tomorrow Signal, Telegram?

                It only establishes that a Grand Jury has found that sufficient evidence has been provided, showing that a crime may have been committed.

                It only establishes that a grand jury was convened, frankly. In the US, Federal accusatory1 grand juries return indictments in nearly all cases.

                "Indicted by a grand jury" is an extremely low barrier. Once you've been charged with an eligible crime by an AUSA, you're almost certain to be indicted.

                1In the US Federal justice system, there are two types of grand juries: accusatory and investigatory. The latter may be convened for months or years, and in theory exists to compile a body of evidence in a complex case, though in practice they're mostly there to fill a room and pretend to listen when an AUSA occasionally tells them a subpoena has been issued. The former are exercises in rubber-stamping whatever a prosecutor tells them. They rarely have the relevant law explained to them, they can be presented with hearsay and other weak forms of evidence, they don't have to be presented with possibly-exculpatory evidence, etc.

          9. cortland

            Re: So tomorrow Signal, Telegram?

            This would require a full-up criminal investigation for ANY transaction that includes an encrypted means of communication.

            Scrabble, anyone?

      2. big_D Silver badge

        Re: So tomorrow Signal, Telegram?

        So, if McDonalds sells him a burger at lunch time to sustain him, are they complicit too? They are also profiting from the illicit gains of a criminal enterprise by taking his money...

      3. Kane Silver badge
        Boffin

        Re: So tomorrow Signal, Telegram?

        "If you sold it to a drug dealer who uses it to evade detection while committing a crime - i.e. dealing drugs - then yes, you are an accomplice."

        So, on that basis, if I sold a blank paper pad and a packet of pencils to a drug dealer, who then used those items to leave notes to other drug dealers and/or customers, does that make me a criminal?

        Even if my name is WHSmith?

      4. Adelio Silver badge

        Re: So tomorrow Signal, Telegram?

        and if i sold him a Tacco, or a screwdriver would i still be a criminal. At what point does this end?

      5. jmch Silver badge

        Re: So tomorrow Signal, Telegram?

        "If you sold it to a drug dealer who uses it to evade detection while committing a crime - i.e. dealing drugs - then yes, you are an accomplice."

        missing something there...

        "If you KNOWINGLY sold it to a drug dealer who uses it to evade detection while committing a crime - i.e. dealing drugs - then yes, you are an accomplice."

        If you sold it to a drug dealer and didn't know, nor could you reasonably have been expected to know that he was a drug dealer, there is no case, whatever the feds etc say.

        Different point... what's the value added to a criminal of subscribing to such a network if 'all' it offers is encrypted end to end messaging? Any smartphone with VPN and Signal does the same. GPS history can be turned off, and you can't be tracked via GPS, which is 'receive-only'*, so disabling GPS offers no added value. Neither does disabling the camera and/or microphone, which however can be physically blocked with some play-doh / tape / glue.

        The weak point is the handset itself (as indeed is related in the article itself) not the network.

        *of course if your phone is hacked your GPS location or camera snaps can be leaked out, but if your phone is hacked you're screwed anyway

      6. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: So tomorrow Signal, Telegram?

        "Best course of action: don't sell, or donate, mobile phones to drug dealers."

        Even if they are personal friends and you have nothing to do with drug dealing personally?

    2. big_D Silver badge
      Paris Hilton

      Re: So tomorrow Signal, Telegram?

      And I'm sure that I've seen images of drug dealers driving Ford and GM trucks and using American made guns. Why aren't the CEOs of these company also up on charges?

  2. don't you hate it when you lose your account

    the deadliest drug epidemic in our nation’s history.

    Actually that was big pharmaceutical companies, lies for profit. Without proof that they knowingly sold to criminals then there's bugger all merit in the case, unless they decide to use the same principle to do the same to the likes of Smith and western. Now that would be interesting.

    1. Kane Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: the deadliest drug epidemic in our nation’s history.

      "Actually that was big pharmaceutical companies, lies for profit."

      Came here to point that out as well, particularly as the Sackler family have recently upped the amount of payouts to settle opioid lawsuits.

  3. Potemkine! Silver badge

    On the same line

    It's time the US government goes against weapons makers, most of them Americans, who know that their products are used by criminals and do nothing against it.

    1. Neil Barnes Silver badge

      Re: On the same line

      And car and other vehicle manufacturers, makers of clothes, ooh, and farmers, too?

      It seems sensible that there is a difference between making an encryption product for general use, and making an encryption product and advertising it to known criminals... but the onus should not be on the maker to decide who is a criminal.

    2. Claverhouse Silver badge

      Re: On the same line

      I thought they sold them to Mexicans, who then sell them to Americans.

      Plausible deniability.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "Uncle Sam's prosecutors added that the biz provided a “guarantee" 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,” as evidence of complicity."

    Jean-François Eap should also be indicted for fraud then, because all law enforcement needs to do is to put the phone in a Faraday Cage to prevent a self-destruct command from reaching the phone.

    I am overjoyed the police somehow compromised the system - probably with help from the inside. Possibly even a back door placed in the system by a helper. It shows that law enforcement can work without requiring a mandatory back door in all public encryption. If a mandatory back door requirement is placed on all encryption, it will be a payday for cyber criminals, domestic and foreign, especially "nation state" cyber-criminals, as they absolutely will crack that backdoor and abuse it.

    Why didn't Eap's customers use Signal, which is (according to some) the most secure encrypted messaging system? Because criminals know that Signal will, when delivered a warrant, tell law enforcement who is taking to who, even though the content is not known. They "trusted" that Eap wouldn't do that. They "trusted" that Eap would give them a heads up. That's the value Eap promised in exchange for a premium, but failed to deliver.

    I wonder - if Eap isn't convicted, will his former clients believe that he hadn't turned informer? It's the frying pan - or the fire, I'm afraid.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      ST, is that you? And you're wrong re: Signal all they can deliver is sign up date/time and last connection date/time so please feel free to FO!

      https://signal.org/bigbrother/eastern-virginia-grand-jury/

    2. This post has been deleted by its author

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    generated hundreds of millions of dollars providing a service that allowed criminal networks

    is it Google or MS?

    1. Sgt_Oddball Silver badge
      Trollface

      Re: generated hundreds of millions of dollars providing a service that allowed criminal networks

      No, they're just the middleman. You want to go for the cable and telecoms companies since they moved the evil bits around. There's a standard and everything...

  6. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    What may well give rise to suspicion is running an expensive service and providing modified equipment. But to go further than that needs evidence of conspiracy. Offering over-priced goods and services is not in itself a criminal conspiracy. Were it otherwise I'm sure we could all think of many businesses both inside and outside the IT industry who'd be in line for prosecution.

    The question here is whether they have evidence of a conspiracy or does the US system allow indictment on suspicion alone as well as allowing indictment of someone who's not even within their jurisdiction?

    1. Electronics'R'Us Silver badge
      Holmes

      Grand Jury

      The USA grand jury process is itself secret and the subject of the investigation has no right to appear or offer their side of the story. It is the prosecutor and their chosen witnesses that are present apart from the jurors themselves.

      The running joke (at least some years ago when I was dating a defence lawyer in the USA) was that a grand jury would indict a ham sandwich if the prosecutor asked them to.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_jury

  7. onemark03

    encryption chat software

    In prosecuting this case, is it possible that Uncle Sam is simply trying to deter others from making or selling encryption chat software?

    1. roknich

      Re: encryption chat software

      how politely you ask :) lol The war is on.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    lot of upset drug dealers posting

    The article clearly states there is evidence that was collected to due to the Dodgy Sky network one of his partners set up, so they have audio evidence. If it doesn't hold up in court, he goes free. If it does, down he goes. If this was russia or china, there would be no court case, just an execution. So he should count his blessings, he gets a day in court,,,,, unless the cartels are afraid of him testifying, then he won't make it to court, as usual.

    1. Claverhouse Silver badge

      Re: lot of upset drug dealers posting

      If this was russia or china, there would be no court case, just an execution.

      .

      Not really...

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    He's not US citizen

    US feds can drink his warm piss. If he lets them.

  10. keith_w

    It will take 3 or 4 years for the extradition case to wend it's way through Canadian courts, and there's no guarantee that it will be successful anyway.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Looks like this is how it's playing out in Europe...

    https://www.vrt.be/vrtnws/en/2021/03/12/police-ask-anyone-with-an-encrypted-sky-ecc-telephone-to-come-fo/

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Looks like this is how it's playing out in Europe...

      Thanks, nice to know this was part of the "tons" of drug bust.

      Hope these creeps go down forever.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Just for fun..

    I like to dd /dev/urandom a file and then encrypt in in AES and send it over Signal just to keep the "powers that be" on their toes and guessing.

    1. CAPS LOCK

      Re: Just for fun..

      I'd avoid doing that in the UK if I were you.

  13. roknich
    Holmes

    “knowingly and intentionally

    How many people have been killed by dynamite? Oh yes, Alfred Nobel set aside money for a prize as pennance.

    You get my drift. How about we make the manufacturers of burner phones responsible for every crime discussed on them?

    “knowingly and intentionally" is a high bar to prove, and if the feds fail, I hope Eap files suit for malicious prosecution.

    As the article suggest, the new US DOJ is cracking down on privacy tools. You can truncate the sentence you published at the word "used."

    Thank you,

    - Dave

    @radioti_me

  14. EnviableOne Silver badge

    Sky Global - are claiming their software was invented to protect the right to privacy as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (a treaty of the UN that the US are signed up to) Article 12

    "No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks."

    the US voted for it in 10 December 1948 and anyone that joined after then was required to accept it as a condition of membership.

    It appears the US gov are in breach of this treaty and have been for years, By bringing this action they are in direct breach of articles 10 and 11

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