Encrypted phones became a favourite of the underworld
Clearly, though, some companies are focused on the illicit market. French authorities have claimed that over 90pc of Encrochat’s customers in that country were involved in some form of crime. EncroChat and two other firms had also posted adverts on various websites widely read by the crook fraternity, including the Dutch blog Vlinderscrime (usually translated as “Butterfly Crime”).
The blogger in question, a convicted murderer and former cocaine dealer named Martin Kok, joked at the time that “advertising on a site where bicycles are offered does not make sense for this type of company”. Kok was found dead in 2016.
Some firms, too, are deeply cagey with their customers, requiring personal referrals. “Many of them are cloak and dagger operations; you can’t talk to an owner,” one secure phone maker told the Daily Beast, a US news website, in 2017. “There is no CEO. There is no corporation.”
The cutthroat industry of encrypted phones
In this end of the industry sharp business practices are common. Buchan says he has often seen peers “bad-mouth each other” on web forums and blogs. He was once approached by a rival who claimed to have bought the rights to a well-known piece of software, offering to cut him a deal. When he contacted the software’s actual makers, they had no idea what he was talking about.
Buchan does admit that, sometimes, he has sold to someone he had a “hunch” – albeit no more – might be shady. He never asks customers what they will use his phones for (“it’s none of my business; people are entitled to privacy”), and in any case sells most of his devices through an online shop.
He is adamant, however, that he would not deal with someone if he had more solid reasons to think that they were involved in illegal activity, and says he takes “socially responsible steps” to limit such bad uses.
For example, he sells special Sim cards that let users mask their phone number behind another (helpful for people who run multiple businesses). When he realised that many customers were buying them specifically to simulate 0300 or 0800 numbers – probably to masquerade as bank employees – he blocked that ability. “That probably cost me three quarters of my sales,” he says.
He even notes that he is politically comfortable with governments installing malware on people’s phone to bypass encryption – as long as there are proper legal “checks and balances’ in place . And he disavows the “appalling” advertising tactics of fly-by-night competitors (one secure phone company promoted on Instagram with the slogan “snitches get stitches”). “That’s just crass, disgusting,” he says. “I’d like to think we’ve got some decorum.”
But hasn’t he just been advertising to EncroChat’s former customers? Sure: Buchan is certain that some of them were legitimate, and suggests that it’s those people he wants to reach. “Was it sailing close to the edge? Maybe. But this is what puts food on the table.”
As for his company’s name, Buchan acknowledges the Mafia connotations, saying it’s a “nudge nudge, wink wink” reference to public perceptions about secure devices. Yet he also argues that the original “omertà”, an Italian criminal code of silence that may be centuries old, historically sometimes meant a simple refusal to cooperate with authority – not always a bad thing in his book.
Besides, he adds, “it was a much better name than something like ‘Encryptor’ or ‘Encryptonite’… as a brand name I think that’s fantastic. It’s Italian, it’s fashionable, it gets away from this geeky language that alienates people. The academics and journalists who get it, they think it’s cool – it makes it sound a bit notorious.”
EncroChat’s downfall won’t bring down the wider market
Despite the big arrests, secure phones are likely to become more common – as long as they are not regulated out of existence. There is now a booming parallel industry devoted to state-sanctioned malware, which activists allege is regularly being sold to murderous regimes.
The Israeli firm NSO has been accused of helping Mexico and Saudi Arabia spy on dissidents via its WhatsApp-busting “Pegasus” software. US police forces, now suffering a nationwide reckoning over racism and brutality, have long used portable “Stingray” and “Graykey” devices to defeat iPhone security.