Blackphone, an Android-powered smartphone with secure email, messaging, and storage services built directly into the operating system, is now available for pre-order. The device costs $ 629 — about as much as an unlocked iPhone — and is expected to debut in June.
Silent Circle, a secure communications service provider, partnered with indie smartphone-maker Geeksphone to design the device. It includes two-year subscriptions to Silent Circle’s phone, messaging, and email services; SpiderOak’s file sharing and storage service; and Disconnect’s private browsing service. Each of these companies have promised to keep their users’ personal information away from the prying eyes of government officials, hackers, and Surveillance Valley companies that gather and sell such information for profit.
These services already offer apps for Android smartphones and, in some cases, iPhones. Blackphone’s claim to fame is that these services are enabled by default, which means that users’ messages and files won’t be sent to an insecure app, as they might be on other devices. (Think of it as barricading your front door and then leaving the back door wide open — with Blackphone, the idea is that there won’t be a back door in the first place.)
Blackphone is simply another part of Silent Circle’s attempts to offer secure, private services that allow them to communicate without fear of surveillance. The company previously shut down its email service after Lavabit, a similar product, was hounded by the government because it counted Edward Snowden as a user. It then formed the Dark Mail Technical Alliance, which seeks to create the “next generation” of secure email, and announced that it was switching away from encryption standards that might have been influenced by the NSA.
The ability to purchase an ostensibly secure, privacy-minded device will likely appeal to those concerned by government and corporate spying. The trick is to convince other consumers, many of whom are accustomed to such spying and unwilling to spend so much money on a smartphone, that Blackphone’s added features are worth the investment.
Reactions from around the Web
Silent Circle co-founder and Pretty Good Privacy creator Phil Zimmermann explains Blackphone’s advantages to PC World:
You could just run the app, but then you have to worry about the rest of the platform. For years I’ve been talking about how it isn’t enough to write good crypto, you need a good platform. This is the first time I’ve been able to work on doing something to protect the platform.
Joshua Kopstein, a cyberculture journalist, pours some water on Blackphone’s attempts to stoke its own fire at the New Yorker:
Some of the privacy advocates I’ve spoken with worry that using “black” or “dark” as a predominant sensibility sends the wrong message. These motifs “sound l33t, cool, and anarchistic, but that’s not the branding our goal needs,” said Brennan Novak, a designer who works on privacy software. “Having private conversations should not have the stigma of potentially dangerous and illegal activity attached to it.”
The Verge’s Aaron Souppouris notes that Blackphone’s ability to secure its users’ communications is limited, and that the device isn’t an altruistic gift to consumers:
Silent Circle’s applications can only offer peer-to-peer encryption when you’re calling another Silent Circle user, and you need to pay Silent Circle to be a user. To solve this problem, everyone using a Blackphone will receive three extra one-year subscriptions to Silent Circle’s services to hand out to friends, colleagues, or family members. After one year the free subscription runs out, and users will be presented with a choice: pay $ 10 per month to continue using the suite, buy a Blackphone, or go back to regular phone calls and text messages. It’s clear that Silent Circle is hoping you’ll choose one of the two options that makes it some money.
[Image via Blackphone]