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From the Mobile World Congress: the ultrasecure Blackphone launches

February 28th, 2014 |  Published in Mobile World Congress 2014

MWC2014 blackphone


28 February 2014 – With a heavy emphasis on encryption and strong controls over all data from your phone, the Blackphone launched amid very intense interest at the Mobile World Congress (MWC). Their booth was perfectly positioned between Hall 3 and Hall 4, a corner spot, the first booth you would see going to the center food courts and the formal session rooms and meeting lounges. The crowds spilled out and over into the double hallways. Adjacent exhibitors were initially pissed off but then cooled down since it brought some attention to their booths, too. Some enterprising exhibitors near the Blackphone set up tapas tables and wine tables.

The Switzerland-based company making the phone, called SGP Technologies, is a joint venture between Spanish smartphone manufacturer Geeksphone and Silent Circle, a secure-e-mail company.

The phone retails for $629 and its key factor is it will strongly encrypt all communications and block the tracking of your Web browsing and search terms. It even blocks extraneous Wi-Fi beacons from your phone, as they tend to leave a detailed record of your phone’s movements. At the press launch Phil Zimmermann, a Blackphone cofounder who invented a widely used encryption system known as PGP for “pretty good privacy” said “the entire reason for the phone to exist is to protect your privacy. We are not a phone company adding a privacy feature; we are a privacy company selling a phone.”

From the data sheet at the conference:

– tools built into the Blackphone include Silent Circle apps, which encrypt voice, text, and e-mail
– anonymous search and private browsing tools from a company called Disconnect
– secure cloud storage from another partner, SpiderOak
– because encrypted communications work only when both parties use it, Blackphone includes three “friends and family” subscriptions for Silent Circle apps.

Out of the box, the phone makes you choose a PIN. It encrypts all files stored on the device and decrypts them only if you use that PIN – a departure from most smartphones, which only use a PIN to lock the screen but don’t encrypt the underlying data.

Then it gives you a brief tutorial on the various security settings under its operating system, called PrivatOS, a custom version of Android. For example, it lets you do things like decide that no apps can ever access your location or contacts. Ultimately it is still an Android phone, and users can install Android apps.

The phone’s designers considered a number of ways to stop data leakage. For example, when a traditional phone seeks a Wi-Fi connection, it is continually making contact with all routers within range. Even if you don’t elect to connect, those Wi-Fi providers capture the ID number of your passing phone. The ID numbers can, in turn, be linked to your identity.

To get around that, the Blackphone will allow the phone to try to make Wi-Fi connections only when you are in a general geographic area that you have defined, such as near a trusted Wi-Fi router at your home or office.

NOTE: Blackphone was a work in progress before Edward Snowden began leaking files about the scope of mass surveillance by the American spy agency.

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