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The launch of the privacy-focused Blackphone attracted plenty of attention at Mobile World Congress last week, but security experts are already warning privacy-conscious potential users not to get too carried away. The technology has limitations and even its developers acknowledge it is not “NSA-proof”.
Blackphone is scheduled to ship to the first end users in June 2014, and testing units will be provided to partner carriers in the April timeframe.
Blackphone was developed by SGP Technologies, a joint venture of Silent Circle (the secure chat firm started by the inventors of PGP encryption) and Spanish smartphone firm Geeksphone. The technology is based on PrivatOS, a hardened version of Android, outfitted with a suite of privacy-enabled applications, which allows users to regain control over their communications activities.
The smartphone comes unlocked and features several pre-installed privacy tools. These tools include the Silent Circle suite of apps – including Silent Phone, Silent Text, and Silent Contacts; anonymous search, private browsing and VPN from Disconnect; and secure cloud file storage from SpiderOak. Silent Circle’s apps offer encrypted voice and video chat as well as encrypted SMS and MMS messaging.
In addition, Blackphone ships with the Smart Wi-Fi Manager from SGP Technologies, and a remote-wipe and device recovery tool. The device also bundles a range of technologies and features found in higher-end smartphones such as a 8MP primary camera with flash and 1.3MP front camera, Bluetooth 4.0, 802.11n Wi-Fi, GPS, and more.
Blackphone is being marketed towards information workers, executives, public figures, and anyone else concerned about “unauthorised surveillance, commercial exploitation of activity data, and the loss of privacy, security and fundamental human rights”.
Chris Wysopal, co-founder and chief technology officer at code review firm Veracode, highlighted interoperability issues with the technology. The hardened security features that come with the Blackphone will only work in calls between Blackphone users. Calls from a Blackphone users to any other phone will be less secure, Wysopal points out.
“This is not the first phone to do this,” Wysopal explained. “Cryptophone from Germany has been in the market for a couple of years using a hardened and stripped down OS and custom apps. Security on phones is not hard to do if your main goal is communicating with a small set of people willing to use the same phones and having security as a main goal. Traditional phones have features (apps) as a main goal and interoperability with many systems that do not share security as a top goal.
“That is what poses a challenge to creating truly secure phones. If Blackphone is successful it will show there is a demand for more security over functionality given recent revelations of government phone tapping,” Wysopal added.
Toby Weir-Jones, Blackphone chief product officer, acknowledged that Blackphone was far from the first mobile phone technology to use security as a key differentiator.
“There have been lots of phones and other technologies over the years intended to secure person-to-person communications,” Weir-Jones explained. “Some were mobile phones, some were software tools, some were proprietary things that looked like phones but in fact worked totally differently. We are certainly not claiming to be, simply stated, the first phone with that ambition.”
Weir-Jones said Blackphone offered users a means to secure their communication from eavesdropping while acknowledging that its security controls, while well designed, could never offer a cast iron guarantee. “Blackphone is intended to confront one specific problem, while acknowledging others still exist,” Weir-Jones explained. “Our prerogative is that the content of your communications is your own private property, and as such it should be your decision about who else can hear or see it. Giving our users the means and transparency necessary to make that decision is the main goal for Blackphone.
“We have never said anything about making your abstract participation on the telephony infrastructure invisible, because obviously such a goal is dramatically more complex and expensive. Similarly, we know that an agency like the NSA will probably have a bag of tricks sufficient to get on your phone and bypass security controls altogether. So any criminals considering buying the phone: don’t think it will save you!”
Developers hope that the Blackphone will become the first in a series of secure smartphone devices.
“We are expecting Blackphone to become a family of devices, and we will continue to advance the capabilities of our platform with successive updates and new products,” Weir-Jones told El Reg. “But if we can make the preservation of personal privacy a cornerstone to the decision process about what phone a user might buy, that is a huge advance. Products which have come before were never expected to be mainstream tools; they were too expensive, had too many limitations, and often required advanced technical and situational awareness. If you have to jump through too many hoops in the mainstream market, any security tool will fail due to the complexity and inconvenience.”
Calls between a Blackphone and a regular smart or feature phone are bound to leak phone call records (metadata) such as who called whom and when, Wysopal added.
“I think a challenge any secure phone has is still traffic analysis of then other phone numbers you call on the normal phone network,” he concluded. “This phone won’t be able to interoperate with normal phones.”
“Blackphone certainly can place regular GSM calls, or send regular SMS messages,” Weir-Jones explained. “It does so like any other phone, without any of the privacy benefits, but it certainly can do it. So if you’re ordering a pizza, or talking to Grandma, you have the ability to make that choice. It will also interoperate securely with any other phone running the Silent Circle apps on either Android or iOS, which means there are already vast numbers of handsets out in the world able to participate safely in the ecosystem. No other secure phone on the market today can make that claim,” he concluded.But Weir-Jones refuted Wysopal’s suggestion that the Blackphone can’t interoperate with other phones, adding that secure calls can be made to users running the Silent Circle apps on Android or iPhones as well as to users of other Blackphones.
Weir-Jones said the biggest test of the smartphone will be whether or not its target market is prepared to pay more for enhanced privacy than the technical shortcomings raised by Wysopal.
“In the end our challenge is not these technical sorts of objections, which are really more a function of a young and expanding market than inherent limitations, but instead the simple question of whether or not people will care,” Weir-Jones explained. “In the US there is a separate economic issue, since users tend to buy phones subsidized by carriers when packaged with contract commitments, but setting that aside, we do believe we should be at the table for any customer who is thinking of buying an unlocked phone anyway.
“If we can make it fashionable to be private by default, and only public by choice, then I have every expectation we’ll shift the conversation.”
Blackphone is available for pre-order as an unlocked device with a starting price of $629. The smartphone also be available through selected partner carriers from launch, including KPN Mobile, the inaugural launch carrier for Blackphone in markets including including Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. It’s scheduled to begin shipping to end users in June 2014.
The technology will undoubtedly attract plenty of bragging rights for cypherpunk types. However Stephen Bonner, a partner in KPMG’s Information Protection & Business Resilience team, argued that the Blackphone protected against threats that were out of the norm for ordinary users.
“Some of the threats these type of products aim to protect against aren’t realistic for most users,” Bonner said. “They might be a cool gadget for wannabe James Bonds but business users need to worry a lot more about the applications on their device and the end-to-end protections they have in place.”
Instead of developing a high-end ultra-secure device it would be better for mobile security as a whole if manufacturers built better security controls into all devices, according to Bonner.
“Privacy shouldn’t be limited to a select few handsets for individuals who have something to hide; privacy should be default for all,” Bonner argued. “The ability to keep data safe and secure without having to think about it should feature in all devices so that all calls, messages, files and browsing data is kept private. ‘Blackphones’ could be the start of a new trend for all phones becoming more secure.” ®