The First Phone Designed With Privacy in Mind

The Blackphone makes its debut this week

26 February 2014

Photo: Blackphone

While many consumers, myself included, buy a new gadget based on how much memory it has, which apps are included, or how lightweight it is, others are more concerned with protecting their privacy. If you’re in the market for such a device, then you might want to check out the Blackphone.

The product launched on 24 February at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona where tens of thousands convene to help advance mobile technology. The phone, which runs on a custom version of the Android operating system, encrypts communications and blocks the tracking of the owner’s activities, such as the sites they browse. It also blocks the Wi-Fi tracking capabilities that show the location of where a phone—and its user—is at any given time. It carries a US $629 price tag.

“The entire reason for the phone to exist is to protect your privacy,” said Blackphone’s cofounder Phil Zimmerman in an interview with MIT Technology Review. “We are not a phone company adding a privacy feature; we are a privacy company selling a phone.” Zimmerman is also the inventor of the encryption system called PGP, known as “Pretty Good Privacy,” as well as the founder of the secure e-mail service, Silent Circle.

Some of the phone’s features include anonymous search and private browsing tools; apps that encrypt voice, text, e-mail, and contacts; as well as secure cloud storage. Unlike other smartphones that require a PIN to unlock the phone, Blackphone asks for a PIN to unlock each of its features to help ensure that it’s the owner who is accessing the information.

Because the features can only truly work when the receiver of a call or message also has encrypted service, Blackphone’s subscription plan includes the ability to add up to a total of three people. It also comes with two years of service for its various security features included in the price of the phone.

While users can still download third-party apps, the company’s managing director, Toby Weir-Jones, encourages them to pay attention to the permissions so they can deny companies that seek to collect information. While the phone cannot eliminate advertisements from outside services, it can at the very least stop the companies from sending targeted ads.

“The hope we have is that this is going to force a rethink of the economics of monetizing personal data in exchange for free services,” said Weir-Jones in an interview with The Verge.

However, despite all the precautions the company has taken, the phone is not 100-percent fool proof. It can still be hacked—and might even present a tantalizing challenge for expert hackers. Moreover, it’s not private enough to block government agencies from accessing some of its information. But to find gaps and improve the product’s privacy and security features, the company will use open source code and invite third parties to help make it as secure as possible.

Mobile carrier KPN, which services Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands, will be the first to sell the phones. Blackphone can also be shipped to other countries, including the United States, but it will not come with service.

For more on cybersecurity, take a look at the latest research in the IEEE Xplore Digital Library.

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