Blackphone, the Next Step in Post-Snowden, Private Communication

February 25, 2014

In June of 2013, Edward Snowden released information showing that the National Security Agency was collecting data from phone calls, texts, and emails of people all over the world. The resulting revelations sparked mass outrage at the invasion of privacy and a nationwide debate over the amount of access the government should have in our lives. These realizations led many to try and find ways to protect themselves.

Blackphone, revealed Monday at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, promises to be the most secure smartphone on the market.

Enter Blackphone, a new privacy-focused smartphone created by Silent Circle and Geeksphone. As Toby Weir-Jones, the general manager of Blackphone, explains, Edward Snowden’s leak of NSA documents has created a demand for privacy. Weir-Jones further explains that this demand was one that “the wider market was not equipped to look for a solution [to].” Blackphone, revealed Monday at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, promises to be the most secure smartphone on the market.
While the phone doesn’t claim to be unbreakable, it does host a dizzying array of secure technology. The main privacy feature will be a custom version of Android, Privat0S, which allows users to “control every part of what data their phone is leaking, their calls, their contacts, their web browsing and what any app put on their phone can do.” The phone will also include encrypted communications apps, 5GB of encrypted cloud storage, and anonymous browsing and Virtual Private Network.
The average consumer, however, may be less interested in what the phone offers and more interested in what it doesn’t. At least at first, the phone will not include an email application. Silent Circle, the phone’s creator, chose to discontinue their “Silent Mail” service when another encrypted email provider was served with a government subpoena. While the company fully intends to eventually provide this service, it remains to be seen whether consumers will respond to the phone in its absence. According to a 2011 Google survey of more than 5,000 customers, 82 percent of smartphone owners check and send email on their phone.
Features aside, there also remains questions as to whether the desire for privacy will overcome the desire to not pay $629 for a cellphone, which is the current, pre-order price of the phone. Also on the price front, is whether Blackphone can prove as profitable as other technology coming out of Silicon Valley. One reason why the technology industry has been able to be so profitable is that it allows companies to thrive by “collecting and analyzing user data, marketing it to advertisers through services like Google and Facebook ads.”
Ultimately though, the question is just how safe is the world’s safest phone. The company’s website offers the disclaimer that “as with most things in life, there is no absolute guarantee,” therefore “we do not claim Blackphone is ‘NSA-proof[.]’” Bruce Schneier, a security expert, notes the nuanced difference between levels of privacy. He believes that against bulk surveillance, Blackphone could offer considerable protection. As he puts it, “the NSA is not made of magic.” This being said, the aspiring terrorist or criminal may not want to run to pre-order the device quite yet. According to Mike Janke, co-founder and CEO of Silent Circle, “[i]f you are on the terrorist wanted list or a criminal, intelligence services will get into your device. . . there’s no such thing as 100% secure phone.”