There are lots of lists out there of things you should do to protect your privacy: Use an ad blocker. Use encryption. Use a VPN. Turn off the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth on your smartphone… Those who want privacy but don’t want to run through that checklist regularly are the target buyers for a new smartphone that will come with these types of privacy and security features built in. CalledBlackphone, it has encrypted messaging from Silent Circle, encrypted data storage from SpiderOak, anti-tracking services from Disconnect, and anti-WiFi sniffing from Kizmet (to prevent your phone being used by retailers to track your movements). Those who want easy smartphone privacy will need to be willing to slap down $629 for it, the price tag on the phone that’s expected to be released in April.
Jeans-wearing executives from Silent Circle, Disconnect, and Spideroak met up with reporters at a hotel suite near the RSA Conference this week to show the phone off. Blackphone comes out of a partnership between Washington, D.C.-based Silent Circle and Spanish smartphone company GeeksPhone. The cost includes three years of encrypted calling and messaging (along with one year of Silent Circle for three privacy-loving family members and friends) and 5 GB of encrypted storage — both services that usually come with monthly fees from Silent Circle and SpiderOak, respectively. The importance of encrypted chatting is top of mind today for anyone who’s seen the Guardian’s story about a British spy agency intercepting Yahoo video chats, including intimate images of otherwise innocent sexy-time chatters.
Ethan Oberman of SpiderOak, Mike Janke of Silent Circle, and Casey Oppenheim of Disconnect
“Facebook didn’t buy a messaging app when they acquired WhatsApp; they bought 400 million eyeballs,” said Silent Circle CEO Mike Janke. The technology ecosystem right now is all about “packaging data and selling it to advertisers. We want to be the bee in the bonnet of the phone industry, selling privacy to consumers instead.”
Verizon and AT&T, for example, collect information about their customers’ Web-browsing and location which they “aggregate and anonymize” to sell to marketers and others interested. The Blackphone would disrupt that, by, for example, allowing smartphone Web surfers to use a VPN, or virtual private network, for their browsing, which would encrypt their browsing activity so it couldn’t be used to reveal information about their interests.
The phone operates of “PrivatOS,” an Android-based operating system. In the U.S., it’ll work with every carrier but Verizon. Abroad, Dutch telecommunications company KPN has already committed to buy 500,000 Blackphones to sell exclusively in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, says Janke, generating a couple hundred million dollars in revenue for the new company.
“I’m glad they think they can make money selling privacy,” said ACLU technologist Chris Soghoian speaking at a security conference in San Francisco Thursday. “The proof is in the pudding. My biggest concern is ongoing updates for Android. The Blackphone may be secure today but it needs regular updates to make sure it stays secure.”
There’s also the possibility that someone using the phone would download malware or a malicious app from Google Play, though the phone will scan apps and let users decide how much information they want to share with each.
“It’s not an NSA-proof phone,” says Janke. “If you’re on the top 100 terrorists list, you’re pwned.”