The first Android-based smartphone explicitly billed as a way to keep the National Security Agency (NSA) out of the owner’s business went on sale today for a list price of $629, but no hope of stopping the surveillance that touched off months of scandals.
Blackphone is an unlocked GSM smartphone that runs a custom version of Android, called PrivateOS, that is designed to provide secure encryption of voice, text, email and video traffic, supports VPNs for encrypted web connections as well as the ability to shut off GPS and user-tracking from all but trusted network-access points, a suite of privacy-enabling applications, and a guarantee of frequent, secure, direct patches and updates direct from the developer.
The Blackphone handset has a 4.7-inch HD IPS screen, runs a 2GHZ quad-core CPU, comes with 16GB of storage, 2GB of memory an eight-megapixel front camera, a rear camera, and support for LTE and HSPA+ networks. The phone is also designed to be corporate IT-management friendly and as familiar to users as any other Android phone. “We wanted it to look and feel just like a phone and apps that are already familiar,” Toby Weir-Jones, chief product officer for Blackphone told Canada’s CBCNews.
Blackphone posted a comparison chart listing some of the ways PrivateOS is designed to be more secure than Android. The device’s imagery and marketing relies heavily on what a New Yorker story called “surveillance-state chic.” The case is sleek and black (as is the Blackphone Website), with information presented in stark cyber-survivalist terms and illustrated with dystopian images and alarming innuendo. The pitch also uses the semi-celebrity of some of the developers involved (primarily PGP creator Phil Zimmerman and former SEAL and Silent Circle founder Mike Janke) to add an air of credibility.
Though details are thin, the tech appears sound, as far as it goes, to experts including Nathan Freitas, founder of open-source mobile-security developer The Guardian Project. The Blackphone developers “are selling expensive services and hardware to people who can afford it, and they are building silo’d communications systems,” Freitas told The New Yorker.
Blackphone ships with the full complement of Silent Circle mobile-encryptions apps, with two years’ subscriptions costs paid. The Silent Circle apps normally cost $99.95 per year for encrypted voice, video, text and file transfer, but only to other Silent Circle phones. Calling landlines and non-Silent cell phones costs $249.95 per year.
Blackphone isn’t the first mobile pitched as the high-security alternative to data-leaking Android and iOS models. In 2012, the NSA released plans for a secure smartphone code-named Fishbowl,” for example. There are plenty of add-on apps and other software-only approaches as well, including CyanogenMod’s version of Android that encrypts texts by default. Commercial developer Cellcrypt pitches infrastructure-based mobile encryption and security to governments and large companies as a series of mobile apps, gateways, switches, handsets and satellite services.
All those products are designed to create a level of privacy for handset users and protection for owners of the data they access. But neither Blackphone nor any of the other handset-based encryption options appears to address the actual, known risk of the NSA’s PRISM surveillance program, which collects metadata on phone calls directly from the carrier, without involving individual handsets at all.
Image: SGP Technologies/Blackphone