Privacy-Protecting 'Blackphone' to Ship in Three Weeks

The phone is designed to help users block data from leaking out to criminals, private companies, and governments.

Mitch Wagner, Executive Editor, Light Reading

June 12, 2014

5 Min Read
Privacy-Protecting 'Blackphone' to Ship in Three Weeks

SAN FRANCISCO -- MIT Technology Review Digital Summit -- "Blackphone," a privacy-protecting secure smartphone, is due to ship in three weeks from Silent Circle, a company co-founded by encryption pioneer Phil Zimmermann.

The Android-based Blackphone, produced in partnership with Geeksphone, will be available from carriers priced at $629, Silent Circle LLC President Zimmermann said Tuesday at a presentation at the conference here.

Silent Circle hopes to see significant demand for its product based on growing awareness of privacy and security, Zimmermann said. "More and more people are waking up to this problem," he said. "There's a growing number of people who want to push back." About 60% of people are willing to give up private information indiscriminately, but that still leaves a big potential market for Blackphone. Silent Circle expects to sell millions of the phones, Zimmermann said.

Silent Circle and Geeksphone unveiled the Blackphone at Mobile World Congress in February, and sold out its first batch of several thousand in weeks. FreedomPop also launched a secure phone -- nicknamed the "Snowden Phone" -- at about the same time. (See Blackphone Unveils Secure Smartphone, FreedomPop Launches 'Snowden Phone'.)

Silent Circle's Blackphone and encrypted communication software is designed to protect users against criminal organizations, private companies seeking information about customers and potential customers, as well as overreaching governments. Zimmermann compared Silent Circle's role to the fictional Spider-Man, who battles both criminals and corrupt authorities.

User control
Silent Circle isn't opposed to services that require users to give up information, said company chief scientist Javier Agüera. "We just want to give users control," he said. For example, Agüera said he's happy to use Google Maps to get driving directions and traffic information, and he gives up his location information to do so.

In addition to providing end-to-end encryption with other Blackphone users, Blackphone also allows users to control the data they send out to external sensors. For example, WiFi basestations can detect the locations of nearby WiFi devices such as phones even if those devices don't establish a connection. Blackphone allows its users to mask those signals, by activating WiFi only when the phone is near the home and office.

Blackphone protects application privacy by monitoring what information applications require to operate and giving the user the option to, basically, lie to the app. The phone's Security Center that tells users what information every application needs and allows users to block the app from getting the information, or trick the app with fake information. For example, an app like a recorder might require access to the phone address book to operate. The Blackphone tells the app that it can have address to the address book, and then falsely reports the address book has nothing in it. "We lie and say, 'oh, yes, here's your address book -- oh, it's empty,'" Zimmermann said. "We help you do guerrilla tricks to get what you want."

Silent Circle is not just a bunch of privacy nuts operating out of a garage. The company announced last month that it had raised $30 million in private funding from investors including Ross Perot Jr. and private investment fund Cain Capital LLC. The company claims customers including consumers in over 130 countries, 23 of the global Fortune 50 enterprises and governments from 11 nations.

Distributors include Dutch telco KPN, through which Silent Circle expects to sell hundreds of thousands of phones in Germany, where KPN is present through its ownership of E-Plus, Zimmermann said. Silent Circle has deals with other telcos too.

Silent Circle also has relationships with governments, including US Navy SEALs, and special operation forces for the UK and Canada. "We have government customers who are using us with lives on the line," Zimmermann said. That gives Silent Circle a peculiarly split relationship with governments -- security agencies who want to monitor communications find Silent Circle products to be obstacles to their work, but other government agencies use Silent Circle services for protection.

Bonnie & Clyde
Messages sent from one Blackphone to another will be encrypted end-to-end, while those sent from a Blackphone to an unsecured device will at least be encrypted from the Blackphone to Silent Circle's servers.

Silent Circle is committed to providing security updates for the phone, Agüera said. That's extremely important in security -- it's not enough for vendors to protect users against today's threats. Users need protection against future threats as well.

In addition to Blackphone, Silent Circle makes privacy apps including Silent Phone, for voice and video calls on iOS, Android, and desktop, as well as Silent Text, with a "Burn" feature that automatically deletes messages and attachments from the sender and recipient machines.

Privacy technology makes strange partnerships. Zimmermann said he was a peace activist in the 80s and teamed up with former Navy SEAL Mike Janke to form the company. Janke is Silent Circle's CEO. One of the company's most valued advisors is a hacker who finds exploits and sells them to governments or criminals -- whoever pays more.

During the Q&A following the Silent Circle presentation, one audience member asked whether the company is concerned about criminals and terrorists using the Blackphone. Zimmermann responded that criminals and terrorists always use technology, but that doesn't make the technology bad. Bonnie & Clyde used cars to outrun police when robbing banks, and terrorists today use car bombs. But no reasonable person blames cars or wants to ban them.

— Mitch Wagner, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profileFollow me on Facebook, West Coast Bureau Chief, Light Reading. Got a tip about SDN or NFV? Send it to [email protected].

About the Author(s)

Mitch Wagner

Executive Editor, Light Reading

San Diego-based Mitch Wagner is many things. As well as being "our guy" on the West Coast (of the US, not Scotland, or anywhere else with indifferent meteorological conditions), he's a husband (to his wife), dissatisfied Democrat, American (so he could be President some day), nonobservant Jew, and science fiction fan. Not necessarily in that order.

He's also one half of a special duo, along with Minnie, who is the co-habitor of the West Coast Bureau and Light Reading's primary chewer of sticks, though she is not the only one on the team who regularly munches on bark.

Wagner, whose previous positions include Editor-in-Chief at Internet Evolution and Executive Editor at InformationWeek, will be responsible for tracking and reporting on developments in Silicon Valley and other US West Coast hotspots of communications technology innovation.

Beats: Software-defined networking (SDN), network functions virtualization (NFV), IP networking, and colored foods (such as 'green rice').

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