MWC 2014: Meet Blackphone, the officially launched super-secure smartphone

In a market where every Android handset vendor is trying to differentiate itself, Blackphone is offering something completely unique: your personal information.

Blackphone, which launched today at Mobile World Congress, is designed to protect your communications from the ground up. The $629 (around £377) Blackphone is available unlocked and supports GSM, LTE, and HSDPA.

“Our goal to build a phone that puts privacy and security first,” says Toby Weir-Jones, managing director at Blackphone. That security includes the content of the device, your texts, phone calls, and online storage. What it won’t include is your email. After the secure email service Lavabit shut down last year, Silent Circle had to shelf its SilentMail product. Between the power of the NSA and the power of the subpoena there is simply no way to keep email safe.

Security on Blackphone comes from two places: the custom-built PrivateOS, built on Android, and a collection of third-party security services. The Security Center in PrivateOS offers a tool for managing app permissions that blows away stock Android, letting users clearly see what apps can do what. The OS also ships with Smart Wi-Fi manager, which protects your wireless connections when on untrusted networks.

Even so, $629 is a lot to pay for a smartphone, especially in the U.S. where users are addicted to comfortable with carrier subsidies. Weir-Jones says the value comes with the services bundled with every phone purchase: two years of Silent Circle , three one-year “Friends and Family” subscriptions, two years of the Disconnect VPN service, and two years of Spideroak online storage for. Throw in a handy international power adapter kit and the total value of a Blackphone could top $1,508 (£904).

“We aren’t just catering to the tinfoil hat crowd,” Weir-Jones says, “We want to help mainstream consumers take control of their information.”

Blackphone is powered by a 2 GHz quad‐core CPU, 4.7-inch HD IPS screen, 2GB DDR3 RAM, 16GB of storage, and an 8-megapixel camera. It also supports Bluetooth 4.0, 802.11n, and GPS, although the exact specs may change before it launches.

This security come with a few caveats, says Weir-Jones. First, to secure communications, the people you talk to must also be using Silent Circle; the phone comes with three, one-year subscriptions so pick your private conversations. Second, the solution is built on Android, which in addition to being the most popular smartphone platform in the world is also the most frequently targeted. That said, there aren’t many other options. Finally, the Blackphone can’t provide security against NSA-level attacks. It seems nothing can.

“We want to protect against real world security threats,” says Weir-Jones. “We are not saying go off the grid, we are just allowing users to choose what to leak—or should I say share.”

The “BYOD” trend has made the need for phone security even more important. “The amount of business and personal information we put on these devices is astounding,” say Mike Kershaw, chief architect at Blackphone. The phone is completely agnostic when it comes to mobile device management platforms, so businesses will still be able to manage Blackphones.

Although the Blackphone can be used worldwide, so far one carrier has agreed to sell the phone at launch. KPN Mobile will offer the phone Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany. Given the public outcry in Germany over NSA wiretapping, Germany is probably ready for a products like Blackphone.

Blackphone is made by SGP Technologies, a joint venture of Silent Circle and Geeksphone, and it has an impressive security pedigree. It relies heavily on the Silent Circle P2P sharing network which was founded by Phil Zimmerman, the author of the PGP encryption protocol.

“I have spent my whole career working to uphold the objectives of privacy,” Phil Zimmermann, co‐founder of Silent Circle and author of PGP, wrote in a statement. “Now that the mobile technologies are mature enough, we couldn’t be more proud of the launch of Blackphone, the first mainstream, fully‐integrated secure communications phone, designed for anyone to use as easily as the legacy phones they’re used to already.”

The Blackphone is available for pre-order now. It ships in June.

We dissected the rumours surrounding the Blackphone in our most recent Tech Weekly News podcast, and debated long and hard about the sort of people who might buy it in the real world. Listen in here.

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