MIT Technology Review obtained Prince’s investor presentation for the “RedPill Phone,” which promises more than it could possibly deliver. From the report: Erik Prince’s pitch to investors was simple — but certainly ambitious: pay just 5 million euros and cure the biggest cybersecurity and privacy plagues of our day. The American billionaire — best known for founding the notorious private military firm Blackwater, which became globally infamous for killing Iraqi civilians and threatening US government investigators — was pushing Unplugged, a smartphone startup promising “free speech, privacy, and security” untethered from dominant tech giants like Apple and Google. In June, Prince publicly revealed the new phone, priced at $850. But before that, beginning in 2021, he was privately hawking the device to investors — using a previously unreported pitch deck that has been obtained by MIT Technology Review. It boldly claims that the phone and its operating system are “impenetrable” to surveillance, interception, and tampering, and its messenger service is marketed as “impossible to intercept or decrypt.”
Boasting falsely that Unplugged has built “the first operating system free of big tech monetization and analytics,” Prince bragged that the device is protected by “government-grade encryption.” Better yet, the pitch added, Unplugged is to be hosted on a global array of server farms so that it “can never be taken offline.” One option is said to be a server farm “on a vessel” located in an “undisclosed location on international waters, connected via satellite to Elon Musk’s StarLink.” An Unplugged spokesperson explained that “they benefit in having servers not be subject to any governmental law.” The Unplugged investor pitch deck is a messy mix of these impossible claims, meaningless buzzwords, and outright fiction. While none of the experts I spoke with had yet been able to test the phone or read its code, because the company hasn’t provided access, the evidence available suggests Unplugged will fall wildly short of what’s promised.
[…] The UP Phone’s operating system, called LibertOS, is a proprietary version of Google’s Android, according to an Unplugged spokesperson. It’s running on an unclear mix of hardware that a company spokesperson says they’ve designed on their own. Even just maintaining a unique Android “fork” — a version of the operating system that departs from the original, like a fork in the road — is a difficult endeavor that can cost massive money and resources, experts warn. For a small startup, that can be an insurmountable challenge. […] Another key issue is life span. Apple’s iPhones are considered the most secure consumer device on the market due in part to the fact that the company offers security updates to some of its older phones for six years, longer than virtually all competitors. When support for a phone ends, security vulnerabilities go unaddressed, and the phone is no longer secure. There is no information available on how long UP Phones will receive security support. “There are two things happening here,” says Allan Liska, a cyberintelligence analyst at the cybersecurity firm Recorded Future. “There are the actual attempts to make real secure phones, and then there is the marketing BS. Distinguishing between those two can be really hard.”
“When I worked in US intelligence, we [penetrated] a number of phone companies overseas,” says Liska. “We were inside those phone companies. We could easily track people based on where they connected to the towers. So when you talk about being impenetrable, that’s wrong. This is a phone, and the way that phones work is they triangulate to cell towers, and there is always latitude and longitude for exactly where you’re sitting,” he adds. “Nothing you do to the phone is going to change that.”
The UP Phone is due out in November 2022.
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