Will ultra-secure smartphones soon become a commonplace item?
In January, secure-communications provider Silent Circle and smartphone manufacturer Geeksphone announced work on a mobile device—dubbed the Blackphone—that facilitates secure messages and calls. (The Blackphone runs PrivatOS, a custom Android distribution; beyond that, the device’s creators are sharing few details about the underlying software.)
Now FreedomPop, which bills itself as a “new wave telecom company,” is issuing the Privacy Phone, a customized Samsung Galaxy S2 that offers 128-bit encryption for voice calls and text messages, along with anonymous Internet browsing. Users can also purchase the hardware with Bitcoin, which adds another layer of anonymity.
“In light of recent violations in consumer’s privacy across social networks and mobile devices, privacy is becoming increasingly important to many Americans and we all have a right to communicate anonymously,” Steven Sesar, COO at FreedomPop, wrote in a statement. “Large carriers don’t have the flexibility, desire or creativity to invest in privacy. We don’t agree with this approach and felt it was up to us to create a truly private mobile phone service at an affordable price.”
The introduction of any new “secure” phone raises inevitable questions. For example, customers’ messages and personal data will need to flow through someone’s datacenters in order to reach a final destination—how will the entities running those datacenters treat that data? (For their part, the Blackphone’s creators insist they control the infrastructure underlying their network, and that they won’t sell customers’ personal data to third parties; FreedomPop likewise has its own network.) And on a broader level: in this post-Snowden era, when the NSA and other government agencies seemingly have access to every server and bit of fiber in the known world, is any system truly secure from a determined hack?
Those are just some of the great uncertainties confronting anyone who opts for a “secure” phone over a standard-issue device purchased at their local electronics store. The big question now is whether aggressively encrypted phones will remain a niche segment of the massive smartphone market—or will millions of people, increasingly paranoid about their communications, petition their favorite smartphone manufacturers and carriers to lock down their mainstream devices further, even if it means more inconvenience?