Mobile World Congress ,
Encrypted Android phone is only the beginning for Blackphone and Silent Circle
Blackphone, the Swiss start-up that’s launching a smartphone with encrypted communications, is planning a series of devices around the same idea, one of the company’s co-founders said on Monday.
“It’s not the only device we will ever do,” said Jon Callas during an interview at the Mobile World Congress expo in Barcelona. “There’ll be other security and privacy-enhanced mobile devices.”
The Blackphone handset, which is being unveiled at the event, goes on sale in June for $629. It looks like a typical Android smartphone and is based on a security-hardened version of the OS called “PrivatOS.” Standard applications include secure calling and text messaging, encrypted file transfer and video chat.
Those communications functions will be based on technology from Silent Circle, a U.S. provider of secure messaging that was founded by Callas and Phil Zimmermann, who is best known as the creator of the PGP public-key encryption system. Zimmermann is working with Callas and executives from Android-phone maker Geeksphone on the Blackphone.
“It’s a phone whose existence is motivated by the need to protect your privacy,” said Zimmermann. “Geeksphone knows how to build phones, Silent Circle knows how to protect privacy. We’ve added in some apps, integrated it all in, tightened the Android settings down and hardened it against attacks.”
The secure communications channel is initiated after two devices—either two Blackphones or a Blackphone and another device running a Silent Circle app—connect and negotiate encryption keys. That step means communications between the two are encrypted and remain unintelligible to intermediates, including Silent Circle’s own servers.
“We don’t require that you trust us. Imagine if our servers fell into the wrong hands. What if the NSA confiscated our servers and installed them in Fort Meade, it wouldn’t make any difference,” said Zimmermann.
While similar communications are possible on a standard Android or iPhone running the Silent Circle app, using a Blackphone means the user doesn’t have to worry so much about attacks to the hardware.
“You could just run the app, but then you have to worry about the rest of the platform,” said Zimmermann. “For years I’ve been talking about how it isn’t enough to write good crypto, you need a good platform. This is the first time I’ve been able to work on doing something to protect the platform.”
““It’s a phone whose existence is motivated by the need to protect your privacy.””
Even before the Blackphone launches, Callas said he’s seen a recent uptick in interest in Silent Circle’s products. He attributes that to the series of leaks from former government security contractor Edward Snowden.
“It’s been great for us,” he said of the revelations that have appeared in newspapers since last June. “We have seen direct spikes in sales due to Snowden. Instead of a boutique company, we are now a semi-mainstream company and that is all thanks to Snowden.”
Silent Circle’s products have always found a user base, said Zimmermann, but the reports on the extent of U.S. and U.K. government surveillance and information sharing are prompting more people to consider privacy.
There remains a gap between complaining about things and actually doing something, but that gap is slowly starting to narrow, said Callas.
The Blackphone handset will be sold direct by the company or through mobile carriers, the only one of which has been announced is KPN Mobile in the Netherlands. The phone has a 4.7-inch screen, 16GB of internal storage, a better-than 2GHz processor and 8-megapixel camera and LTE cellular, according to the provisional specifications.
Included in the price will be a two-year subscription to Silent Circle calling, Disconnect secure search and private browsing and SpiderOak secure file transfer services. Users will be able to gift three contacts a year-long subscription to Silent Circle.
Encrypted comms firm Silent Circle has just announced a new funding round which it says has been fueled by demand in the privacy-focused smartphone, Blackphone, the security hardened Android handset it’s building with Spanish startup Geeksphone.
Privacy, it seems, is a hot new investment area in these post-Snowden times. It’s also rather fitting, given Silent Circle was forced to preemptively shutter its encrypted email service last summer, in the wake of the NSA spying revelations, since it didn’t want to be complicit with government snooping on its users.
Instead of monetizing secure email, Silent Circle switched its focus to secure telephony — and that decision has been given a big boost by the new funding. The Blackphone, which is due to launch in June, went up for pre-order in February — costing $629 unlocked.
The $30 million funding round — Silent Circle’s first external funding — is led by investors including Ross Perot Jr. and private investment fund Cain Capital LLC, which is based in Dallas.
Perot Jr. and Sir Peter Bonfield, the former CEO and chairman of British Telecom, are joining Silent Circle’s Advisory Board, while Anurag Jain, formerly a senior Dell executive — and an investment partner of Perot Jr.’s, has been appointed as vice chairman of the board.
Silent Circle said it will use the new funding to meet what it dubbed “overwhelming demand” for Blackphone, and to accelerate its growth in the secure comms market.
Commenting on the funding in a statement, Jain said: “Having followed Silent Circle’s growth and profile in the industry, we are excited about backing the company’s future and fulfilling the wider demand for accessible, easy to use privacy apps that are already an indispensable means of communication. This is particularly true in fast-growing markets outside of the U.S. where demand for private communications solutions is fueled by strong privacy cultures, intrusive surveillance and censorship.”
To capitalize on a growing appetite for privacy outside North America, Silent Circle is relocating its global headquarters from the Caribbean to Switzerland, in Europe. It retains an office outside Washington, D.C. and in London, along with data centers in Canada and Switzerland — and employees “staged around the world”, as it puts it.
Silent Circle’s centre of gravity is evidently shifting, towards being a more international entity — and one that’s putting a little more distance between the heart of its business and the U.S. mainland.
“The move to Switzerland is extremely important for us as a company serving a global customer base. Switzerland’s strong privacy laws, legendary neutrality, and economic business advantages will allow us the ability to scale to Silent Circle’s rapid adoption by businesses, governments and individual pro-sumers around the world,” said Vic Hyder, Silent Circle Chief of Revenue, in a statement.
The main features of the forthcoming Blackphone Android handset are a set of privacy-focused apps, including Silent Phone and Silent Text for secure, encrypted telephony and messaging — using Silent Circle’s secure network — so that only you and someone also using a Blackphone or using Silent Circle’s service on another device are privy to the contents of the messages.
Other features included bundled third party services including secure cloud storage, a secure/non-trackable search product that uses a VPN to anonymise browsing on the device and a wi-fi anonymiser product.
The basic philosophy of Blackphone is to lower user resistance to adopting effective security measures by lowing the barrier to entry — via things like bundling with relevant third parties, and incorporating key security measures into the phone’s set-up.
For more on the device, read our closer look from earlier in the year.
Update: Asked how pre-orders are going, Geeksphone co-founder, Javier Agüera, told TechCrunch they have “exceeded expectations” — but wouldn’t disclose any figures at this time. He did say Blackphone has been intentionally limiting the amount of pre-orders it accepts to ensure it can deliver devices on time, and ensure “the adequate quality inspection this product deserves”, as he put it.
Take into account that Blackphone devices require special measures during manufacturing, for example there are security specialists in the plant making sure the software is properly loaded and without alterations. This accounts for a more costly manufacturing process, but is needed as part of one of the unique features of the device,” he said.
Agüera added that the release date is on schedule at this time. “For the time being there seems to be no deviation from the announced date by the end of June. PrivatOS in its first version is already in testing phase with promising results, and even though you never know with component supply nowadays, if we slip in the date it would be something very minor,” he said.