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Anti-NSA Blackphone: Encrypted smartphone designed to liberate users from total surveillance

Published time: January 15, 2014 22:22
Edited time: January 16, 2014 10:57
Image from blackphone.ch

Image from blackphone.ch

Silent Circle – an encryption firm that has made it its mission to defy NSA snooping – is releasing what it says will be the world’s most secure smartphone.

“What we are trying to do is to make a smartphone whose whole purpose is to protect users’ privacy,” said Phil Zimmerman, a renowned cryptographer and one of Silent Circle’s founders.

Makers say that both the hardware and software of the device, dubbed the Blackphone, has been specially modified, and all communication services come pre-installed, meaning the handset has “no hooks to carriers or vendors.”

The company has partnered with Geeksphone, a niche Spanish phone manufacturer that uses the Android platform for its mobile devices.

A darkened photo on the Blackphone website is the only hint as to how the device will look, and no specifications have been announced, though the producers say the phone will be manufactured in security-conscious Switzerland.

Silent Circle was one of the biggest providers of encrypted email in the world in the past several years, but pre-emptively shut down its services in August last year ahead of an expected broad surveillance request by the FBI.

The company was following the example of Lavabit, which offered similar services, until it was served with orders from the Feds to turn over its encryption keys. The US authorities had suspected that fugitive National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden may have been using the service prior to his leaks last summer.

The two companies, who style themselves after the Rebel Alliance who fought the Death Star in Star Wars, subsequently joined forces to develop Dark Mail, a new purportedly super-secure email service that is expected to be unveiled later this year.

The Blackphone is not the first product on the market to aim for the increasingly popular privacy niche, with a German company offering a device called the Cryptophone, and another handset called Quasar IV. But it failed to gather enough money to go into production in a Kickstarter campaign three months ago.

And while it is obvious that these phones will offer a superior level of protection when it comes to being tracked by business rivals or family members, it is not clear whether they are sufficient to escape the long reach of the NSA.

Documents revealed by Edward Snowden show that not only has the agency cracked all the popular encryption codes, but that it also resorts to implanting physical listening devices in equipment, as well as using other independent interception techniques.

The security of communication also depends not only on what device is used by the owner of the super-secure phone, but also, the location of the device he is communicating with.

Geeksphone, which was founded by a 16-year old in 2009, also has a mixed reputation in the business, with big announcements followed by disappointing releases, or products that have failed to make it to the market altogether.

Nonetheless, the manufacturer says it will be taking first orders for the Blackphone later this year.