Privacy has been a concern on everyone's minds since Edward Snowden leaked classified documents to the press revealing the US National Security Agency's now notorious PRISM campaign.
These concerns reached new heights earlier this year when fresh revelations broke suggesting that the campaigns had intercepted communications sent from computers and smartphones.
So secure communications provider Silent Circle has teamed up with tech company Geeksphone to produce an NSA-busting, super-secure smartphone designed from the ground up to protect users' privacy, codenamed Blackphone.
Hardware and design
Silent Circle announced the Blackphone in January, though it only made its first official appearance at Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona last week.
Visually the Blackphone is fairly unassuming, featuring a basic black handset with a slightly curved chassis that's built out of reinforced plastic. But under the hood it's slightly more impressive.
Geeksphone claims the Blackphone has been built to offer users internal specifications on a par with any other top-end smartphone, such as the Galaxy S5 or iPhone 5S. It comes with a 4.7in HD in-plane switching (IPS) touchscreen, quad-core 2GHz chip, 2GB RAM, 16GB of storage and an 8MP rear camera.
The Blackphone we saw was a pre-production model so the Silent Circle spokesman on staff declined our request to hold the phone – we would have argued our point but considering Silent Circle's tendency to hire ex-special forces personnel, we thought better of it. This meant we didn't get a chance to see how the smartphone's camera performed or benchmark it. However, during our demo we were impressed with the Blackphone's screen. Looking at the display we found it had great colour balance and brightness, and fairly good viewing angles.
The most important aspect of the Blackphone is its software. The Blackphone runs using a radically altered version of Android, codenamed PrivatOS. PrivatOS is a customised version of Android that is designed to secure the Blackphone at a hardware and software level. One of the main ways it does this is by integrating Silent Circle's Silent Text, Silent Phone, Silent Contacts and Silent Keys services directly into the operating system.
These tools allow users to securely make and receive phone calls, exchange texts, transfer and store files and video chat, without fear that their activities are being monitored or recorded.
They work using a custom communications technology developed by Silent Circle, which works by setting up a secure line between the Blackphone and any other device using Silent Circle services. All data flowing within the secure channel is encrypted using a self-generating and deleting encryption key. As an added security measure the key is never stored on the phone or by Silent Circle, so organisations such as the NSA couldn't demand that the firm hands them over should they want to spy on Blackphone users.
The one downside of the technology is that it requires both participants in the call or messaging chain to use Silent Circle's tools. This means communications between a Blackphone and regular phone not using Silent Circle products won't be secure.
Silent Circle has tried to get round this by bundling the Blackphone with three free one-year subscriptions to Silent Circle services that can be shared with friends, families or co-workers. But for business users looking to find a way to make all their communications secure this could be a bit of an issue.
The Blackphone will also come bundled with the Kismet Smart WiFi Manager and two-year access to Disconnect VPN and SpiderOak encrypted storage. The tools make it so Blackphone users should be able to surf the internet on public WiFi networks without giving away their GPS location or IP address.
During our demo we noticed the PrivatOS user interface (UI) was nicely quiet and Silent Circle hadn't radically reworked it or loaded too many custom applications or widgets. Aside from the UI's security services, Silent Circle had limited the Blackphone to Android's core applications, including Camera, Calendar and Clock. Silent Circle also said it would work to ensure any future applications running on the Blackphone are secured.
Value for money
The Blackphone is up for pre-order now for $629. While this sounds quite expensive it's important to note that the Blackphone's software and application portfolio alone would normally set you back more than $700.
Overall, we are impressed with the Blackphone. Despite its price, the Blackphone offers a diverse range of privacy and security services.
Our only initial concern is that by requiring the person at the other end of the phone to also be using Silent Circle services to be secure, the Blackphone's overall effectiveness as a mass rollout device for businesses is diminished. That said, it could still be useful to businesses to roll out to select teams with a specific need for privacy, such as C-level executives, or engineers working on confidential projects.
Check back with V3 later this year for a full review of the Silent Circle Blackphone.
By V3's Alastair Stevenson
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