For years, people relied on a fleet of BlackBerry phones to keep their communications from falling into the wrong hands. It was the gold standard in smartphone security, but by and large, that selling point only mattered to Fortune 500 companies with plenty to lose. Today, BlackBerry owns less than 1 percent of the global smartphone market, but as fate would have it, the company’s insistence on keeping private items out of public hands is what’s keeping it afloat. And, security may be trending, as seen with then new Blackphone 2 ($649).
Announced last month at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Silent Circle’s latest handset offers nothing that your average Android phone doesn’t already have — a 5.5-inch full HD display, 3GB of RAM, a speedy Qualcomm processor. It even looks average. The reason it exists, however, is its software. Utilizing a modified version of Android dubbed PrivatOS, it’s unequivocally the most secure smartphone an average civilian can buy. Everything — from calls to messaging to email — is encrypted. But at $649, the phone’s hardly a bargain, and it beyond the encryption, the features are standard at best.
Which got us wondering: where’s the security demand coming from?
Radiohead called it back in 1997, but it’s taken nearly a score for the rest of us to heed the warning. What we’re witnessing is a cavernous divide in society. You’ve got the share-everything crowd — replete with those who never hesitate to push their every thought onto a public network — and the overly concerned crowd. Since Edward Snowden obliterated every preconceived notion we’ve ever had of perceived privacy, an increasing number of mainstream phone users have found themselves concerned with the safekeeping of their information. Couple that with what feels like an endless stream of breaches (Target, Chase, Home Depot, etc.), and one thing has become crystal clear: maintaining your privacy is a matter best handled by you.
Hence, the need for Blackphone 2. The fact that we’re talking about the second iteration of such a device is proof that there’s bubbling demand for a smartphone that doesn’t take chances. While Silent Circle receives most of its current revenue from large companies, it’s seeing increasing demand from average citizens. The phone is said to be impossible to hack — because everything it does is encrypted. So, even if lost or compromised, the data cannot be read without a number of unlocks from the original owner. If the data were any tougher to crack, the phone would be infeasible to actually use.
For those in the market for a new phone, Blackphone 2 hits on a lot of targets. Beyond its natural abilities to keep your data secure, it’s able to run every Android app on the Play Store. That’s huge for compatibility, and it’s a major advantage that BlackBerry lacks. (Between the two, Android is far and away the more robust ecosystem.) Additionally, it’s launching the Silent Store, which is said to be the “world’s first privacy- and security-orientated app store.”
For those not in the market for a new phone, Silent Circle has released its three most critical Blackphone apps on Google’s Play Store and Apple’s App Store: Silent Phone and Silent Text 2. That means that other Android and iPhone handsets can — at the very least — encrypt their calls, texts and contacts using the same hardened method as seen on the Blackphone 2 itself. To boot, a flood of new security-focused app companies have emerged with great fanfare. CryptTalk, CryptoCat, ChatSecure, Orbot and Signal are just a few, all of which enable either secure messaging or secure browsing on one’s phone.
Perhaps the most interesting footnote in the Blackphone saga is where it was launched, and how much coverage it received from mainstream media outlets. MWC isn’t Black Hat — which is to say this phone didn’t launch to a crowd of IT administrators or Chief Security Officers. This phone launched in front of laypeople, with the same reporters that cover the iPhone and Samsung’s Galaxy line on hand to parse every nugget of its release. In a matter of years, security has gone from a cute box to check when hawking a product to a point that consumers are apt to actually drill down on. It’s no longer good enough to tout “security” — when your brother, sister and second cousin twice removed are all wondering about their online privacy, you have to deliver results.
It’s unfortunate that it took such a dark string of data breaches for the masses to wake up, but in any case, we’ve arrived. Even at Apple’s most recent keynote event, it spent a seemingly inordinate amount of time detailing its Health app’s security features instead of other features. But, when you’re talking about the collection of intimate data, the integrity of that data is now in the forefront of everyone’s mind. Security is no longer assumed, it must first be proven. Unless, of course, you’re the Blackphone 2, where everything takes a back seat to privacy.
Editor’s Note: For most of us, the wide world of technology is a wormhole of dubious trends with a side of jargon soup. If it’s not a bombardment of startups and tech trends (minimum viable product, Big Data, billion-dollar IPO!) then it’s unrelenting feature-mongering (Smart Everything! Siri!). What’s a level-headed guy with a few bucks in his pocket supposed to do? We’ve got an answer, and it’s not a ?+Option+Esc. Welcome to Decrypted, a new weekly commentary about tech’s place in the real world. We’ll spend some weeks demystifying and others criticizing, but it’ll all be in plain English. So take off your headphones, settle in for something longer than 140 characters and prepare to wise up.