Silent Circle and Geeksphone announced the Blackphone earlier this year as everyone was still wringing their hands over NSA spying. The stated goal was to make communications private, just like they ought to be. Of course, that was conflated with an NSA-proof phone, which it’s not.
Now, after having been officially unveiled at MWC, the Blackphone is up for pre-order and Silent Circle has explained more about how the handset will work. Spoiler: It’s not doing anything new, but it does come with a full suite of privacy-minded apps and services. With the Blackphone, what it lacks may be just as important as what it includes.
The Blackphone clocks in at $629 (£375) over in the US, which is right up there with the unlocked cost of most flagship smartphones. The device will run on a 2GHz (or higher) quad-core ARM chip, with 2GB of RAM and 16GB of internal storage. Wondering about a microSD card for more storage? What, and let someone walk away with your data? Surely you jest. Buyers will also be treated to a 4.7in 720p LCD and 802.11n Wi-Fi. Despite the privacy focus, the Blackphone does still have the usual HSPA+, LTE, and GPS.
The hardware is fine, though likely generic. The real selling point of the Blackphone is the software it runs. The company calls it PrivatOS, and it’s based on the open source version of Android. Most other Android devices you buy have Google’s services woven into the foundation of the OS, but not Blackphone. This device comes bundled with only Silent Circle apps and a few select third-party services for secure file sharing and VPNs. That means you don’t have access to Google’s app ecosystem, cloud platform, or location services. Although, that’s kind of why you’d buy the Blackphone.
The Blackphone includes a two-year subscription to the Silent Circle application suite, which is what actually makes your communication secure. There’s no magic way to make regular cellular calls completely untraceable – the Blackphone is using the same network infrastructure and baseband as every other Android device on the market. Blackphone’s page uses a lot of inflammatory language to describe how Google’s services work, making it seem like this is more an anti-Google than anti-government surveillance phone.
Access to Silent Phone, Text, and Contacts costs $10 (£6) per month after the included subscription, but you can only communicate with other people who also use the company’s VoIP service, which can be installed on any Android phone. To make things a bit easier, the Blackphone includes three one-year “friends and family” Silent Circle passes. Adding up all the Silent Circle, encrypted file sharing, and VPN subscriptions leaves you with a value of about $1500 (£900). That assumes you use all these services to their fullest, of course.
Silent Circle has also built out an enhanced version of Android’s app permission system in PrivatOS, like the now-defunct App Ops or CyanogenMod’s permission manager. It’s not unheard of functionality, but the more advanced permission management will allow users to revoke permissions from apps individually. For example, location or contact access can be blocked for some or all apps. The apps themselves will probably be side-load only, seeing as there’s no app store. Remote device management and security updates have also been modified by Silent Circle.
Now that Silent Circle’s plans are laid out for us, the project seems less fanciful, but also less revolutionary. This is basically a moderately powerful smartphone running a privacy-focused custom ROM and some extra privacy tools that you can install on any phone. In fact, most of what the Blackphone does can be replicated with a much cheaper Nexus 5 – install CyanogenMod, don’t flash the Google apps package, relock the bootloader, and install the Silent Circle suite.
Silent Circle has been careful not to claim that this phone will thwart the NSA, but some people will still expect that. This device really just takes the guesswork out of making a mobile device somewhat more secure. Is that worth $629 (£375)? Silent Circle sure hopes so. The Blackphone is expected to ship in June.
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