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Blackphone claims to be first NSA-proof smartphone

Date

Lily Hay Newman

Blackphone

Blackphone

The global conversation about privacy is in high gear, and services for private and secure messaging have been popping up everywhere to try to meet demand. But most consumers aren't in a position to evaluate whether these services can actually deliver on their promises, and the companies themselves may not be aware of things they're missing.

Now a new smartphone called Blackphone is taking a stab at "prioritising user privacy" and creating an entire ecosystem.

Blackphone comes from cryptographer Phil Zimmermann, whose company Silent Circle is partnering with Spanish start-up Geeksphone for the project.

"What we're trying to do is to make a smartphone whose whole purpose is to protect users' privacy," Zimmermann said in a promotional video.

The smartphone will run a modified version of Android called PrivatOS, built with the intent of making all standard tasks secure.

"You can make and receive secure phone calls; exchange secure texts; exchange and store secure files; have secure video chat; browse privately; and anonymise your activity through a VPN," the Blackphone website says.

The Blackphone handset is unlocked and works with any GSM carrier. Though it's unclear exactly what's going on under the hood, the company claims that the hardware is a "top performer" if you look at benchmarks. More importantly, there isn't a lot of detail yet about how the privacy measures are going to work other than encrypted messaging, "secure telephony", and privacy measures baked into the hardware, including on the CPU.

"There has never been a time in the world where privacy has become such a commodity, and none of the other devices in the world have been built around giving privacy back to the user," Silent Circle chief executive Mike Janke said in the video.

Janke also told Mashable the project will be "open source all the way", and confirmed the Android OS build the phone will run will be open source as well.

Pricing has not been announced, but Blackphone will open up pre-orders on February 24 during the first day of Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. It is not known if the device will be available in Australia.

It's unclear whether Blackphone will be anything close to a complete mobile privacy solution. Still, it's an interesting step because the product is an effort to make an entire privacy-based landscape, instead of just individual elements that a user can combine to try to form a more private digital existence. Perhaps the biggest takeaway that has come out of revelations about NSA surveillance and the insecurity of consumer devices is that the concept of privacy needs to be redefined for digital data, and that it is more difficult than it might seem for a service to provide the features consumers expect in a secure way.

It's a positive step for Blackphone to take a stab at creating an ecosystem that emphasises privacy. There could be a lot to learn from the company as a test case whether it succeeds or fails. And if it works, it could put a stop to the "hi NSA!" jokes everyone makes now before admitting that they accidentally shoplifted.

Slate

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