Erik Prince wants to sell you a “secure” smartphone that’s too good to be truePatrick Howell O’Neill
Erik Prince’s pitch to investors was simple—but certainly ambitious: pay just €5 million 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.
The product is the latest example in a decade-long tradition of privacy- and security-focused smartphones that promise to do far more than your Android or iPhone can to protect you and your data. Ever since Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations about American spying, a new phone has popped up in this market at least once per year. The trend was already so prominent by 2014 that MIT Technology Review called “ultraprivate phones” one of the year’s technology breakthroughs. Well, mea culpa. Almost every attempt to build this kind of phone has failed.
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.
Too good to be true
“No device is impenetrable—that’s been proven over time,” says David Richardson, vice president at the mobile security firm Lookout.
The selling points of Unplugged’s device, known as the UP Phone, are built on enormous promises of security and privacy that go beyond what any phone can accomplish. Buzzwords like “government-grade encryption” imply some kind of heightened protection, but—as the company never mentions—governments use the same standard encryption as the rest of us. When asked about the phrase by MIT Technology Review, Unplugged acknowledged “this messaging doesn’t resonate well with our community” and said they won’t use it moving forward.
“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.”
Prince told investors the UP Phone is built by “engineers with deep experience in lawful interception, surveillance, and spoofing capabilities.”
While taking various privacy and security enhancements from open source projects, Unplugged spokesperson Alona Stein told MIT Technology Review via email, Unplugged’s proprietary operating system developed their own “enhancements” including “based on knowledge not available to the public (zero-days) and others.” A zero-day vulnerability is an unknown security weakness that can be attacked via exploit that can sell for millions of dollars.
Unplugged’s day-to-day technology operations are run by Eran Karpen, a former employee of CommuniTake, the Israeli startup that gave rise to the now infamous hacker-for-hire firm NSO Group. There, Karpen built the IntactPhone, which the company called a “military-grade mobile device.” He’s also a veteran of Israel’s Unit 8200, an agency that conducts cyber espionage and is the country’s equivalent of the NSA.
But anyone with that experience should be able to see through Prince’s claim that the UP Phone is impossible to surveil.
“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’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.
“There’s such a high volume of vulnerabilities that Android is disclosing and patching on an ongoing basis that you really do need to stay on top of all of those,” says Richardson. Keeping all the software and hardware compatible with every new version of Android is something that very few companies other than tech giants can effectively do. To deal with that, some niche phones simply don’t adopt new Android versions—a cheaper but more dangerous road.
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.
Some other privacy phones are serious if imperfect products. The Librem 5, for example, is built by Purism, an American “social purpose corporation” specializing in privacy-oriented products. The phone is fully transparent and publishes source code and hardware details for anyone to see—unlike Unplugged, which has released precious few details next to its big promises. Librem is based on Linux, a free and open-source operating system that gives the lie to Prince’s false claim of being first to create an operating system outside Big Tech. Numerous commercially available phones have done this already.
The Librem’s critical reception has been nuanced: reviewers have praised the phone’s ambition and details, as well as the relatively straightforward and honest marketing, a respectable feat in and of itself. (But, like so many Linux devices, it will appeal mostly to tech experts and people who can tolerate a significant learning curve.)
GrapheneOS is another sober and credible project that has set out to deliver a secure, open-source, auditable operating system for Android phones.
Unplugged sits on the opposite end of this spectrum. The company’s claim that the phone is “impenetrable” recalls the “hack-proof” phone that John McAfee, known for being accused of running a multimillion-dollar cryptocurrency fraud just before his death, tried to sell in 2017.
Since it was publicly unveiled in June 2022, the Unplugged phone has become an object of skepticism and scorn among cybersecurity experts.
“Words and phrases like ‘government-grade’ and ‘impenetrable’ are rightly mocked online by the computer security community because we know that they’re used to fool people,” says Nicholas Weaver, a cybersecurity researcher at the International Computer Science Institute.
Weaver believes the UP phone is not so much about the technology as it is about the perceived sales opportunity. “This is right-wing affinity fraud,” he argues.
In fact, the phone was originally called the “RedPill Phone,” a name based on a meme adored by the American far right. Prince is a vocal supporter of former president Donald Trump, and he debuted the phone on “War Room,” a podcast hosted by former Trump strategist Steve Bannon. Bannon and his fans got a discount code from the show.
It’s initially surprising, then, to see Prince pitch investors on the idea that the phone will appeal to “right wing and left wing alike.” But this offers a clue as to why Unplugged dropped the RedPill name.
Still, Prince may find a receptive audience in Bannon’s followers—which could matter greatly to the success of the phone. Its future will likely come down to how much customers believe in Prince and his claims.
“I think for the layperson, it comes down to trust,” says Kyle Rankin, president of Purism. “Does this vendor that’s selling you a phone require you to trust them to be secure? And then if so, are they worthy of that trust? It boils down to that.”
The question of trust has long been a tricky one for many security and privacy phones.
For example, the security firm DarkMatter, an incognito intelligence agency for the United Arab Emirates that has reportedly been busted hacking dissidents and journalists, marketed its own “ultrasecure” phone called the Katim beginning in 2018. The same year, a sleek black phone dubbed Anom was marketed specifically to people involved in organized crime, promising an “ultrasecure” device “hardened against targeted surveillance and intrusion.” In fact, however, the phone company was secretly run by the FBI.
Often the reasons for failure are simpler. The Blackphone, a security-first device that came out almost immediately after the Snowden leaks, is reported to have quickly fallen millions of dollars into debt because of low sales. And that device was more than $200 less expensive than the UP Phone.
In short, the market is littered with failure. Ambitions to build a more secure smartphone are noble. Claims that your phone is impenetrable are misleading at best and dangerous at worst. f
The UP Phone is due out in November 2022.
Update: The story has been updated to include details provided by an Unplugged spokesperson.
Erik Prince’s pitch to investors was simple—but certainly ambitious: pay just €5 million 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…