Ultra-secure Blackphone coming soon

News by Steve Gold

PGP founder links with Europe's first mass market Android vendor

Silent Circle - the company founded by PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) creator Phil Zimmerman and a number of military specialists - has announced it is teaming up with GeeksPhone, the Spanish smartphone developer and vendor, to develop an ultra-secure Android handset called the Blackphone.

GeeksPhone was founded in early 2009 by Javir Agüera and Rodrigo Silva-Ramos, shipping its first handset, the GeeksPhone One, a year later. The firm built on that model - the first European-developed mass market Android handset - with the Keon, Peak and Peak+ smartphones.

Blackphone - which will use a custom hardened version of Android known as PrivatOS - will feature much of Silent Circle's technology, including secure voice and text messaging facilities, although it remains to be seen whether a secure email function will be released.

The idea behind the handset – which will be formally unveiled this spring - is that it will allow users to make and receive secure voice calls, exchange secure text messages, transfer and store files, and use a secure video chat facility, all free from eavesdropping.

In a video to launch Blackphone - the company of the same name is based in Switzerland - Zimmerman said that he has spent his entire career working towards the launch of secure telephony products, adding that Blackphone provides users with everything they need to ensure privacy and control of their communications - along with all the other high-end smartphone features they have come to expect.

Commenting on the impending launch of the Blackphone, Nigel Stanley, CEO and analyst of Incoming Thought, the information security consultancy, said that it is an interesting move by Zimmerman, especially since it will offer competition for Cellcrypt, the main player in the secure mobile communications industry.

"The idea of creating an Android version of a device that does this is very interesting indeed," he told SCMagazineUK.com, adding that the big question is whether the Android device - and its customised/secure version of the mobile operating system - will open to inspection by the rest of the industry.

"The price point that Blackphone comes in at is also going to be fascinating, as well as how they are going to sell it," he said, noting that Cellcrypt's approach to date has been to sell through specialist vertical market dealers.

Stanley - who has specialised in smartphone security for several years - went on to say that his observations suggest that people do not usually know their voice communications are being supervised until it is too late.

This means, he said, that the Blackphone will have a ready market amongst those individuals and companies that are concerned about their communications being eavesdropped.

Rob Bamforth, a security analyst with Quocirca, was equally interested. He said that, as Cellcrypt have shown, this area of the mobile market is popular.

"The reality is that, for various reasons, many people do not want their calls monitored or recorded. My main question is that, if the Blackphone turns out to be the secure mobile phone system that users have been seeking, then what sort of black hat monitoring technology will be developed to try and counter it," he said.

The Quocirca analyst went on to say that he was talking to a set of Swiss banking professionals recently, and noted that their approach to security was very physical in nature, rather than electronic.

"Basically they were looking at airgapping systems, rather than using conventional IT security," he said.

“It's clear that we are entering into something of an arms race with secure mobile communications,” he told SCMagazineUK.com.

"I know Samsung have been developing a secure version of Android  for some time, but this could take things to a much higher level," he said.

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