Blackphone - putting privacy back into mobile

7 March 2014 | Author: Kirsten Morel

Following the revelations of government spying on both sides of the Atlantic, and as mobile device users start to tire of the constant tracking of their communications for marketing and other purposes, there could hardly be a better time to launch a mobile handset that's designed specifically to increase the user's privacy.

Blackphone is just such a response. The tie-up between communications encryption specialists, Silent Circle, and independent handset manufacturer, Geeksphone, has produced a smartphone that comes at the price of a high-end Android device but with privacy at its heart. 

Always interested in the privacy implications of new technology, DQ Magazine took the opportunity to learn more about Blackphone by asking Blackphone's Chief Product Officer, Toby Weir-Jones, about the handset and the firm's plans to succeed in the highly competitive mobile device marketplace.

DQ:  How long has Blackphone been in development?

TWJ: Blackphone has been in development for about a year in total.

DQ:  With regard to the collaboration between Silent Circle and Geeksphone - what brought the two firms together? What makes you good partners?

TWJ: Silent Circle and Geeksphone are a great fit because there was essentially no overlap in their standalone activities, and both were essential to create Blackphone.  Silent Circle was well established in the privacy apps space, and Geeksphone had successfully figured out how to manufacture innovative phones and bring them to market.  Geeksphone wanted to elevate the positioning of their offerings and Silent Circle wanted to find more of a turnkey path to market, and the rest is history.

DQ:  Why do you think there's a market for devices with enhanced security / privacy? How would you describe your target market?

TWJ: Privacy has become an issue that everybody cares about, not just senior execs, high-ranking government figures, and reclusive individuals.  And the technology is now mature enough that it needn't be complex or restrictive to achieve reasonable privacy in your communications and online life.  Our target market is the group of people who were going to buy a phone anyway and now have a real alternative which isn't based solely on uprated hardware specifications.  We offer a real functionality advantage with no penalty in terms of usability and price.

DQ:  You tweeted recently that, from a marketing perspective, you're aiming at "Lifestyle Leaders" rather than "techies". What has led you to this approach?

TWJ: Techies will make their decisions based on studying all the details and deciding whether or not they like the underlying bits and pieces, and that's an important group for us - we have to be credible to that audience.  But in terms of market size, they are a small slice, and we want to reach a much larger audience.  So we are aiming to be stylish and elegant, and for privacy to be the informed person's choice.

DQ:  How does PrivatOS differ from more orthodox Android systems?

TWJ: PrivatOS brings a range of security controls and capabilities to Android, and enables them in a simple way which ensures no data leakage for customers and maximum flexibility for deciding what to disclose online.  It's the foundation for not only Blackphone, but the whole family of products we'll be releasing, so it needs to have all the flexibility and expansion capabilities of Android while maintaining our objectives for privacy and control.

DQ:  What are the phone's main security features? With elements such as private calling, does security rely on encryption? If so, to what level? 

TWJ: The main security features are full encryption on all communications -- voice, video, chat, texting, file transfer, file storage, web browsing, and search - plus smart Wi-Fi management to turn off Wi-Fi except when you're talking to trusted hot spots, and the Blackphone Security Center which gives you all the permissions for every single app on the phone and allows you to make wide-ranging policy config changes, or get into one-by-one changes for each individual app.

There is a lot of good information about encrypted calling here:

DQ:  How have pre-orders / interest been going? 

TWJ: Pre-orders and interest are off the charts.  In addition to the initial commitment from our launch carrier partner KPN, we are seeing private users from all over the world flock to the website to ensure they get their phones in the initial manufacturing run.  It's a huge privilege to be able to form relationships with these customers when we haven't released the phone yet!

DQ:  As a mobile device startup what are the principle challenges you face in the market and how do you plan to overcome them?

TWJ: The biggest challenge is responding to the demand and growing the company fast enough, but smart enough, to ensure we keep track of our goals.  And the single most important goal is to ship our first product.  So we're hiring aggressively and planning out a whole staffing model for all the different functions we're going to need, at the scale we're going to need them over the next few years.  It's a massive undertaking but fortunately we have a lot of solid experience in the phone industry specifically, and in building companies more generally, so while we'll no doubt make mistakes, we're pretty good at correcting and moving on.  

Find out more about Blackphone and pre-order here.


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