Touted as the world’s most secure smartphone, the Blackphone started shipping Monday to customers who pre-ordered the Android-based phone. Blackphone, which uses a mix of third-party and homegrown apps to encrypt users’ texts, phone calls, Web searches and emails, uses readily available technology that could be easily transferred to other smartphones. So why don’t companies like Apple and Samsung offer the same features?
The Blackphone first made waves earlier this year touting the ability to theoretically shield customers from surveillance, which is made easier by unencrypted Web traffic or Wi-Fi connections. While not completely NSA-proof, that pitch made the $630 phone the first to focus on privacy as a selling point.
Phones have increasingly become hubs of personal data, making them very valuable to government agencies, advertisers, and hackers alike. Most people use their phones for Web browsing. But because most websites and third-party mobile apps are unencrypted, they can reveal a lot of personal information — your phone number, your location at any given moment, your passwords, your emails, and your photos, to name a few. Even if using the private setting on a mobile Web browser, websites can still collect personal data and track your browsing habits and location data.
Even phone calls are not safe. A typical iPhone or Android smartphone makes calls over VoIP connections where the data transferred between two phones can be intercepted at any point as the two phones connect and start talking to one another. And the calls aren’t always automatically encrypted by phone carriers or manufacturers. Video calls, text messages, instant messages and any information sent through a mobile app over Wi-Fi can be intercepted or hacked.
With the Blackphone, users can control what information companies collect for advertising purposes. While some standard Blackphone features such as Silent Circle’s encryption-based apps can be downloaded on most smartphones, Blackphone owners will by default get encrypted text messages, phone and video calls. The operating system also disables automatic WiFi detection outside a few trusted hot spots in order to stop the phone from releasing its ID, location, and personal data over the network. Even if using Google’s search engine, Blackphone customers’ data won’t get collected by the company. Users can also send and receive encrypted documents, and delete their messages from another user’s phone.
The Blackphone’s hefty upfront cost and lagging performance will likely keep most customers from turning in their iPhones or Samsung Galaxy S5s. But some of the Blackphone’s features could plausibly be built in to the next generation of smartphones.
Often at the expense of security, phone manufacturers tend to focus on improving user experience, making a smartphone fast and able to seamlessly integrate with other devices and apps that make life easier. But even though the phone is powered by Android, which is known to have security problems in other devices, the development of the Blackphone suggests that everyday technology can be redesigned with privacy and security consciously in mind.
The phone industry overall has been slow to make security features standard. While the idea has been around for several years, Microsoft, Apple and Samsung only recently vowed to make the “kill switch,” which gives the capability to remotely wipe a phone’s contents if it’s lost or stolen, standard in all phones, possibly in response to backlash from the NSA leaks. Starting in 2015, all new smartphones would automatically come with the feature and customers would have to manually opt out.
Phone companies stand to lose billions of dollars if they don’t follow Blackphone’s example. Last year’s revelations about the NSA’s phone surveillance programs and backdoor arrangements with phone manufacturers and wireless carriers have proven to be bad for business. American tech and Internet companies have generally taken a hit overseas — about a 20 percent dip in sales — because international companies are ending their partnerships amid privacy concerns. Germany announced last week that it would terminate its contract with Verizon, bluntly citing fears of U.S. surveillance. Companies could lose $35 billion by 2016, over surveillance concerns, according to a report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.