Home » Erik Prince Claims His Vaporware Super-Phone Could Have Thwarted Hamas Attack

Erik Prince Claims His Vaporware Super-Phone Could Have Thwarted Hamas Attack

Notorious Blackwater founder and perennial mercenary entrepreneur Erik Prince has a new business venture: a cellphone company whose marketing rests atop a pile of muddled and absurd claims of immunity to surveillance. On a recent episode of his podcast, Prince claimed that his special phone’s purported privacy safeguards could have prevented many of the casualties from Hamas’s October 7 attack.

The inaugural episode of “Off Leash with Erik Prince,” the podcast he co-hosts with former Trump campaign adviser Mark Serrano, focused largely on the Hamas massacre and various intelligence failures of the Israeli military. Toward the end of the November 2 episode, following a brief advertisement for Prince’s new phone company, Unplugged, Serrano asked how Hamas had leveraged technology to plan the attack. “I think that when the post-op of this disaster is done, I think the main source of intel for Hamas was cellphone data,” Serrano claimed, without evidence. “How does Gaza access that data? I mean, Hamas?”

Prince answered that location coordinates, commonly leaked from phones via advertising data, were surely crucial to Hamas’s ability to locate Israel Defense Forces installations and kibbutzim.

Serrano, apparently sensing an opportunity to promote Prince’s $949 “double encrypted” phone, continued: “If all of Israel had Unplugged [phones] on October 7, what would that have done to Hamas’s strategy?”

Prince didn’t miss a beat. “I will almost guarantee that whether it’s the people living on kibbutzes, but especially the 19, 20, 21-year-old kids that are serving in the IDF, if they’re not on duty, they’re on their phones and on social media, and that cellphone data was tracked and collected and used for targeting by Hamas,” he said. “This phone, Unplugged, prevents that from happening.”

Unplugged’s product documentation is light on details, privacy researcher Zach Edwards told The Intercept, and the features the company touts can be replicated on most phones just by tinkering with settings. Both Android devices and iPhones, Edwards pointed out, allow users to deactivate their advertising IDs. It’s unclear what makes Unplugged any different, let alone a tool that could have thwarted the Hamas attack. “Folks should wait for proof before accepting those claims,” Edwards said.

“Simply Not True”

This isn’t the first time Prince has used an act of violence as a business opportunity. Following the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School, Prince constructed a mock school building called R U Ready High School where police could pay to train for future shootings. In 2017, he pitched the Trump White House on a plan, modeled after the British East India Company, to privatize the American war in Afghanistan with mercenaries.

With Unplugged, Prince’s main claim seems to be that, unlike most phones, his company’s devices don’t have advertising IDs: unique codes generated by every Android and iOS phone that marketers use to surveil consumer habits, including location. Unplugged claims its phones use a customized version of Android that strips out these IDs. But the notion that Prince’s phone, which is still unavailable for purchase more than a year after it was announced, could have saved lives on October 7 was contradicted by mobile phone security experts, who told The Intercept that just about every aspect of the claim is false, speculative, or too vague to verify.

“That is simply not true and that is not how mobile geolocation works,” said Allan Liska, an intelligence analyst at the cybersecurity firm Recorded Future. While Prince is correct that the absence of an advertising ID would diminish to some degree the amount of personal data leaked by a phone, it by no means cuts it off entirely. So long as a device is connected to cellular towers — generally considered a key feature for cellphones — it’s susceptible to tracking. “Mobile geolocation is based on tower data triangulation and there is no level of operating system security that that can bypass that,” Liska added.

Unplugged CEO Ryan Paterson told The Intercept that Prince’s statement about how his phone could have minimized Israeli deaths on October 7 “has much to do with the amount of data that the majority of cell phones in the world today create about the users of the device, their locations, patterns of life and behaviors,” citing a 2022 Electronic Frontier Foundation report on how mobile advertising data fuels police surveillance. Indeed, smartphone advertising has created an immeasurably vast global ecosystem of intimate personal data, unregulated and easily bought and sold, that can facilitate state surveillance without judicial oversight.

“Unplugged’s UP Phone has an operating system that does not contain a [mobile advertising ID] that can be passed [on], does not have any Google Mobile Services, and has a built-in firewall that blocks applications from sending any tracker information from the device, and delivering advertisements to the phone,” Paterson added in an email. “Taking these data sources away from the Hamas planners could have seriously disrupted and limited their operations effectiveness.”

Unplugged did not respond to a request for more detailed information about its privacy and security measures.

Neither Erik Prince nor an attorney who represents him responded to questions from The Intercept.

Articles of Faith

“While it’s true that anyone could theoretically find aggregate data on populated areas and possibly more specific data on an individual using mobile advertiser identifiers, it is completely unclear if Hamas used this and the ‘could have’ in the last sentence is doing a lot of work,” William Budington, a security researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation who regularly scrutinizes Android systems, wrote in an email to The Intercept. “If Hamas was getting access to location information through cell tower triangulation methods (say their targets were connecting to cell towers within Gaza that they had access to), then [Prince’s] phone would be as vulnerable to this as any iOS or Android device.”

The idea of nixing advertising IDs is by no means a privacy silver bullet. “When he is talking about advertising IDs, that is separate from location data,” Budington noted. If a phone’s user gives an app permission to access that phone’s location, there’s little to nothing Prince can do to keep that data private. “Do some apps get location data as well as an advertising ID? Yes. But his claim that Hamas had access to this information, and it was pervasively used in the attack to establish patterns of movement, is far-fetched and extremely speculative,” Budington wrote.

Liska, who previously worked in information security within the U.S. intelligence community, agreed. “I also find the claim that Hamas was purchasing advertising/location data to be a bit preposterous as well,” he said. “Not that they couldn’t do it (I am not familiar with Israeli privacy laws) but that they would have enough intelligence to know who to target with the purchase.”

Hamas’s assault displayed a stunningly sophisticated understanding of the Israeli state security apparatus, but there’s been no evidence that this included the use of commercially obtained mobile phone data.

While it’s possible that Unplugged phones block all apps from requesting location tracking permission in the first place, this would break any location-based features in the phone, rendering something as basic as a mapping app useless. But even this hypothetical is impossible to verify, because the phone has yet to leave Prince’s imagination and reach any actual customers, and its customized version of Android, dubbed “LibertOS,” has never been examined by any third parties.

While Unplugged has released a one-page security audit, conducted by PwC Digital Technology, it applied only to the company’s website and an app it offers, not the phone, making its security and privacy claims largely articles of faith.

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January 2024