June 29, 2021
The RCMP suspected someone senior in its ranks was offering to spill secrets, but still didn’t know the identity of the alleged leaker for several months after they first learned highly confidential information about investigations had been compromised.
The revelation is contained in court documents unsealed late last week at the request of The Fifth Estate.
The documents suggest investigators ultimately focused on a small group who had access to sensitive information stored on an RCMP server “controlled by the RCMP National Intelligence Co-ordination Centre,” and “access to its files is limited to select authorized employees of the RCMP.”
The RCMP has said little to date about the investigation code-named Project Ace that ultimately led to the arrest of their top intelligence analyst Cameron Ortis.
Affidavits and supporting materials for two search warrants — which include numerous redactions and pages of sensitive information subject to a publication ban until Ortis’s trial has concluded — reveal a tangled investigation involving the FBI and a Canadian businessman now serving time in U.S. federal prison.
Ortis is in custody in Ottawa and awaiting trial after being arrested on Sept. 12, 2019.
He faces eight counts of violating the Security of Information Act and two criminal counts. The Crown alleges that he violated the Security of Information Act by leaking operational information and intending to leak even more critical investigative details.
As director general of the RCMP’s National Intelligence Co-ordination Centre (NICC) for more than three years, Ortis was one of the highest-ranking civilian members in Canada’s federal police force, with access to sensitive national and multinational investigations.
Encrypted cellphones sold
The RCMP documents also reveal more about the arrest of Canadian businessman Vincent Ramos, whose company, Phantom Secure, sold encrypted cellphones to organized crime groups and who was the catalyst for the internal RCMP investigation.
Affidavits for both warrants were sworn by B.C. RCMP Cpl. James Rowland, who was then posted to the sensitive and international investigations unit in Ottawa and assisting with the hunt for the leaker.
“The objective of the present investigation (Project Ace) is to identify the person or persons who communicated with Vincent Ramos and offered to sell him illegally obtained confidential police information,” Rowland’s sworn statement says.
WATCH | Who is Vincent Ramos:
Investigators were focused on communications between the unidentified leaker and Ramos from Feb. 5 to April 29, 2015, and sought two warrants in August 2018 to allow them to comb through numerous computer and electronic devices they’d obtained after Ramos’s arrest.
The documents show the B.C. businessman was first arrested in Las Vegas, Nev., on March 3, 2018, but somehow escaped the FBI and was caught again four days later in Bellingham, Wash., just south of the Canadian border.
The Fifth Estate has previously reported that law enforcement was examining a computer they had seized at the time Ramos was arrested when they discovered emails offering secrets for sale.
“Given that no data breach has been detected on RCMP computer systems, the unidentified suspect is believed to be a current or former RCMP employee or contractor,” according to Rowland’s information.
The information further reveals that in 2013, the RCMP launched Project Saturation “in response to an increase in law enforcement requests to analyse BlackBerry mobile devices equipped with PGP [Pretty Good Privacy] encryption.”
“The requests showed a trend amongst organized crime groups, both in Canada and internationally, to use PGP encrypted mobile devices.”
Project Saturation focused, in part, on Ramos and Phantom Secure, which sold BlackBerry cellphones that had been gutted and their inner workings replaced with PGP software that the company said was “uncrackable.” Ramos sold his encrypted devices to organized crime groups around the world, including Australian biker gangs and Mexico’s notorious Sinaloa drug cartel.
The RCMP warrant information further states that Project Saturation “was led by the RCMP National Intelligence Co-ordination Centre” and that “a large amount of data was obtained on Phantom Secure.”
Ortis was appointed director general of the NICC in April 2016. He started as a civilian analyst at the RCMP in 2007 after completing a PhD at the University of British Columbia. He previously held positions in the RCMP’s Operations Research and National Security Criminal Investigations Directorate.
Ramos eventually pleaded guilty to one count of racketeering and was ordered to forfeit $80 million US. He is serving his nine-year sentence at a U.S. penitentiary in Marion, Ill.
As part of his plea agreement, Ramos is eligible to request a transfer to a Canadian prison after serving five years in the U.S.
The unsealing of these RCMP search warrants comes two weeks after the unveiling of a multinational police operation that netted hundreds of alleged organized crime figures around the world.
The international arrests were the result of the FBI listening in on alleged illegal activity on encrypted cellphones that were sold to alleged criminals in an unprecedented three-year FBI-led sting operation.
FBI recruited drug trafficker
According to an FBI affidavit unsealed earlier this month in U.S. District Court, Southern District of California, the worldwide sting operation was a direct offshoot of the Ramos investigation.
The FBI recruited a convicted drug trafficker whose identity they are protecting. He had previously distributed Phantom Secure cellphones and was now “developing the ‘next generation’ encrypted communications product.”
In exchange for a reduced sentence, the source offered his new encrypted communications device to the FBI.
“For the first time, the FBI developed and operated its own hardened encrypted device company called ANOM,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman at the June 8 news conference.
“ANOM’s distributors, administrators and agents had so much confidence in the secrecy of their devices that they openly marketed them to other potential users as designed by criminals for criminals.”
With the expanded distribution of devices, law enforcement globally could secretly listen to alleged illegal activity, including drug deals and money laundering. More than 12,000 ANOM encrypted devices were sold to more than 300 criminal organizations operating in more than 100 countries, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Ortis’s trial is set to begin in September 2022.
His lawyer, Ian Carter, declined to comment on the case while it is before the courts.