Secure Blackphone to debut at Mobile World Congress
Pro-privacy communications provider Silent Circle and open source mobile specialist Geeksphone have joined forces to create the Blackphone – a smartphone that claims to be the first to place privacy and control in the hands of the user.
The two companies have formed a Swiss-based joint-venture and the first Blackphone will be manufactured by Geeksphone, which created the first the first Firefox OS developer handsets (and introduced Android to the Europeam market in 2009). The companies plan to show the first Blackphones at Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona next month.
Blackphone runs a security oriented version of Android known as PrivatOS and promises to allow users to make and receive secure phone calls, exchange secure text messages and transfer and store files without compromising their privacy.
“I have spent my whole career working towards the launch of secure telephony products,” says Phil Zimmerman, creator of Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) and Silent Circle. “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.”
Zimmerman is one of a number of leading figures in the security industry backing Blackphone, which hopes to pitch itself as an alternative to those concerned by the scale of PRISM and other US surveillance programmes. In the 1990s, his creation of PGP (oringally intended to allow anti-nuclear activists to share information privately) helped liberalise the use of strong encryption which the US classed as a “munition”.
“The number one priority in creating Blackphone is to uphold the objectives of privacy,” he says. “It’s not to serve some other business model of monetising customer data. What we’re trying to do is to make a smartphone whose whole purpose is to protect users’ privacy.”
Silent Circle shut down its email services over fears that it would receive requests from the US government for its users’ data in August, but announced in October that it would be working with Lavabit, another firm which had closed services following the revelations, to create a secure email platform.
They formed the Dark Mail Alliance, which has the stated aim of developing ‘Email 3.0’ – a private end-to-end encrypted alternative to current email systems.
Blackphone will be available after it has been unveiled at MWC, with orders starting on 24 February.
The choice of Switzerland as a base for the project is clearly influenced by the country’s moves to present itself as a haven from surveillance by the NSA. The incumbent telco Swisscom has pitched a private “Swiss cloud” with all data stored within the country, capitalising on the country’s “long tradition of data protection and privacy”.
Security watchers with longer memories may be more sceptical of Switzerland’s reputation. TechWeek has been reminded of an earlier Swiss company, Crypto AG, which provided secure encryption machines – but it is widely understood that these devices have backdoors, and that Crypto AG is covertly owned by the US security services.
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