Unplugged Mysteries

Seth Hettena, of Rolling Stone, on Twitter:

Erik Prince’s latest venture is the Unplugged phone, an $850 standalone mobile device with its own app suite that’s being developed in Israel and will allow “patriots to communicate securely.”

Unplugged says it is based in Cyprus.

Prince is best known for founding the mercenary force and training firm Blackwater, now part of Triple Canopy. Blackwater staff murdered fourteen Iraqi civilians in Baghdad in 2007 and wounded another twenty. Those contractors were outrageously pardoned in 2020 drawing condemnation from, among many people, Glenn Greenwald.

It should have raised red flags when Greenwald, according to an emailed invitation from a PR firm, will “be at DEF CON with Unplugged”. The firm says it is offering private meetings with Greenwald at a hotel, according to a screenshot of the message from the PR firm that I am not posting because its recipient deleted its public record. But it was accurately summarized in a tweet from MIT Technology Review reporter Patrick Howell O’Neill:

A PR firm is pitching a DEF CON meeting with Glenn Greenwald who is going to the con “with” privacy phone maker http://unplugged.com. Been a minute since we’ve had a new “government-grade” privacy phone, this one is due to launch Nov 22. Anyone have any thoughts on the phone?

Greenwald responded:

This is all a lie. I have nothing to do with this product. I was asked to speak at DEF CON but haven’t agreed to do that.

But look at all the corporate journalists spreading this lie. This is what they do: once they see you as an ideological enemy, they spread lies with abandon.

Is it a lie? It is not, at least, O’Neill’s lie. I have a copy of the invitation which, unless forged, is offering exactly what O’Neill describes. There could be several ways this proves untrue — Greenwald may not be at DEF CON, for example, or he might be at the conference but not at Unplugged’s behest. Similarly, Greenwald may not be associated with the product, but his tweet does not necessarily preclude involvement with the company.

When I reached out to the PR contact on the invitation, they declined to comment, even about whether they are working for Unplugged. But in an emailed comment, Greenwald told me he has “no fucking idea why the PR firm is claiming this”, further elaborating that he has “not agreed to speak at DEF CON, nor have I scheduled any meeting with these phone people, nor have I been paid anything nor entered into any contract with anyone about any of this.” He acknowledges the “phone people asked if I’d be willing to meet with them to hear about this phone” and was offered a speaking gig by the company, but denies any further involvement with Unplugged or its products.

It seems pretty clear to me that Greenwald is not involved. Why this PR firm says it is facilitating meetings with him or treating him as an affiliate of Unplugged is a mystery to me, too. The best explanation I can think of — and this is entirely speculative — is they hoped Greenwald would agree to such a contract. At present, he says he has not.

But I got this far, so I thought it would be worth exploring the phone a bit. Zach Edwards said it looked like a Vivo phone, but as I started to dig through GSM Arena’s database, it looks more like it resembles a blend of the Xiaomi 11T and the Realme GT Neo.

Most of all, though, the phone resembles the Liberty Ghost Phone, announced in May in a since-deleted tweet — and the relationship does not appear to stop there. Liberty is promoting the Unplugged suite on its own website, and both phones run the Android fork LibertOS which sports “government-grade” security, whatever that means. The specs of the Ghost Phone are nearly identical to those of the Unplugged; the sole difference I can see is the resolution of the main rear camera. Indeed, if you try to pre-order the Liberty Ghost Phone, a notice appears on the shopping cart page advising you to read the full pre-order terms on Unplugged’s website. It is almost enough to make you think these are the same company.

But there is one more thing: Liberty explicitly claims its “phones are never made in China”, and all of the similar phones I can find are made by Chinese firms. To be clear, I cannot find the same claim on Unplugged’s website or marketing materials. But it is odd, right? I just cannot help but wonder what the chances are that two companies make nearly identical phones that seem to be based on devices from Chinese companies, but one of them says theirs is not made in China. I sent a list of questions to Unplugged, but my email went unanswered; I will update this article if I hear back.

If I were in the market for this kind of phone, I would listen to Matt Blaze and not place my trust in either of these companies, regardless of the security audit (PDF) on Unplugged’s website. Liberty and Unplugged may say they offer highly secured devices “[i]ndependent from Google and Apple”, but they are still Android phones with unclear origins and questionable futures. Will Unplugged offer regular updates? Will it even be around in five years? PwC may have audited the device and found few security concerns, but those involved in Unplugged also have close connections with private intelligence firms. I have concerns about that.

One thing this phone has going for it is that it is, at its core, an Android phone. There is a chance the device itself may not be unusable after just a few years even if the company disappears. That is not the case for a comparable product like the Purism Librem 5. (Update: Hacker News user kop316 flagged this as incorrect, as alternative Linux distros like PostmarketOS support the Librem 5. I regret the error.)

And that is all without getting into the issue of whether anyone should support a company that has a working relationship with Erik Prince. I cannot imagine a circumstance where that is even remotely ethical. The massacring of civilians in Nisour Square is just the tip of an iceberg. Prince and his firms have a long and deeply troubling history; Jeremy Scahill’s book about Blackwater is worth reading.

As far as I can tell, Liberty and Unplugged are selling different versions of the same white label phone that run the same fork of Android. Both say they are liberating users from “Big Tech”, both say they offer higher degrees of security and privacy — whether that is true is to be determined — and neither has made any commitments to long-term support. Unplugged is not affiliated with Glenn Greenwald, and the claims of PR people should be tested. Oh, and Erik Prince is just the worst.

Class dismissed.

Update: On August 3, Unplugged responded, kind of.