Silent Circle provides a set of services and mobile apps which allow users to make encrypted video and voice calls as well as send encrypted text messages. It is a subscription based service with monthly charges starting at $9.95. The Blackphone, which runs “a security-oriented Android build named PrivatOS”, allows users to make and receive secure phone calls, exchange secure texts, transfer and store files, and video chat “without compromising user privacy on the device.” Although not explicitly stated, it appears that the Blackphone will have the Silent Circle software and services embedded into the phone.
The other partner in this endeavor is Geeksphone who, until now, designed and sold a couple of open source based smartphones. In 2009 the company became the first European brand to launch an Android based smartphone and in 2013 it launched the world’s first Firefox OS powered phone.
There is very little detail about the actual phone at the moment as the official launch isn’t until the MWC next month. However the Blackphone website says that “performance benchmarks put it among the top performers from any manufacturer.”
There are some big names behind this new launch, most notably the co-founder and president of Silent Circle. Phil Zimmermann. He is probably best known as the creator of Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) the email and data encryption program he published in 1991. PGP certainly caused a storm at the time as strong encryption was regarded as munitions by the US government. In February 1993 Zimmermann was formally investigated for “munitions export without a license”. Thankfully after several years the investigation of Zimmermann was closed without any criminal charges being brought against him or anyone else.
One question that isn’t answered in any of Blackphone’s literature or on their website is whether Blackphone users will need to buy Silent Circle subscriptions. Although the phone will be unlocked and works with any GSM carrier the additional monthly cost will be something that will deter lots of users. Although many people are concerned about privacy, if it costs them an extra $10 per month then that concern might just become less of a priority. I have spoken to representatives of Silent Circle and Geeksphone but I haven’t been able to find out any more. I have also contacted Blackphone directly. If I get a response I will update this article.
Although Blackphone claims to be the “world’s first smartphone placing privacy and control directly in the hands of its users” we mustn’t forget the Quasar IV – a cipherphone from QSAlpha. The Quasar IV was announced last year and has been available for pre-order since November. According to the QSAlpha website the 5 inch full HD quad-core Snapdragon 800 powered Quasar IV will be delivered to those who pre-ordered it in May.