Jan 172014

blackphone (1)

The pro-privacy movement has been cranking up its own ideas to counter spy-tech with pro-privacy tech

As the reality of the extent and invasiveness of the security services’ dragnet surveillance programs hits home, the pro-privacy movement has been cranking up its own ideas to counter spy-tech with pro-privacy tech. The Lavabit founder’s recent Kickstarter for a secure end-to-end open source encrypted email project called Dark Mail is one example.

Today, here’s another: meet Blackphone, a smartphone that’s been designed to enable secure, encrypted communications, private browsing and secure file-sharing.

The project is a joint venture between Silent Circle — which shuttered its own encrypted email service last summer in order to preemptively avoid having to comply with government requests to provide data — and Spanish smartphone startup Geeksphone, which has previously made more standard Android handsets, and more recently has been building phone hardware for Mozilla’s open web standards HTML5-based Firefox OS.

The pair said today they have established a new Switzerland-based joint venture to collaborate on technology projects, with Blackphone set to be the inaugural product. They describe the phone as “the world’s first smartphone placing privacy and control directly in the hands of its users”.

Despite that grand claim, Blackphone is by no means the first encrypted smartphone. For example, back in September TC’s John Biggs and I paid a visit to a German based secure phone maker, GSMK Cryptophone, which has been in the encrypted telephony business for 10 years.

Another recent project to build a phone designed with security, encryption and identity protection in mind is the Quasar IV, which is using a hybrid Android/Linux and Quatrix mobile OS called QuaOS as the foundation for secure telephony.

But while Blackphone is not the only secure phone game in town, there’s no doubt that last year’s revelations about security agencies’ consumer electronics and services powered data-harvesting habits — revealed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden — have accelerated interest in security and privacy. The fallout from Snowden’s big reveal is clearly attracting new players to what could potentially become a much more mainstream space.

Hence, presumably, the Blackphone makers’ reasoning about now being the right time to build a pro-privacy phone that doesn’t carry the stench of security geek. The tone and nomenclature of their announcement very much feels targeted at a mainstream smartphone user, not a security specialist.

Their press release includes a statement from Phil Zimmermann, the creator of PGP, who is also involved in the project, which sets this tone.

“I have spent my whole career working towards the launch of secure telephony products,” he says.  “Blackphone provides users with everything they need to ensure privacy and control of their communications, along with all the other high-end smartphone features they have come to expect.”

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