Blackphones coming in three weeks, will ship in millions, backers say

Carriers in Europe and the Americas have committed to selling the secure handset, Silent Circle and Geeksphone say

Javier Aguera, co-founder of Geeksphone, talked about the Blackphone on Tuesday at the MIT Technology Review Digital Summit.

Javier Aguera, co-founder of Geeksphone, talked about the Blackphone on Tuesday at the MIT Technology Review Digital Summit.

The Blackphone security-focused smartphone will go on the market in three weeks and "a few thousand" have already been sold through pre-orders, executives from the device's makers say.

Encrypted communications provider, Silent Circle, and manufacturer, Geeksphone, introduced the Blackphone earlier this year to give users a way around data collection by governments and private companies. The $US629 device, made by a Swiss joint venture called SGP Technologies SA, runs a custom Android-based OS and was designed from the ground up to prevent hacking. It will offer secure and private voice and video calls, text messaging and file exchanges, as well as anonymous Internet use, the companies say.

Through partnerships with service providers in Europe and in North, Central and South America, the companies have commitments to deliver millions of phones, Silent Circle President and co-founder Phil Zimmerman said on Tuesday at MIT Technology Review's Digital Summit in San Francisco. KPN, which has already said it will sell the Blackphone in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, is committing to hundreds of thousands of phones, he said.

The device, along with Silent Circle's service, offers end-to-end encrypted communications from one Blackphone to another. Even if one person doesn't have a Blackphone, communication will be encrypted from the phone to Silent Circle's servers.

Silent Circle doesn't hold the encryption keys itself, so it can't give governments access to users' communications even if asked, Zimmerman said. The phone also keeps carriers and app providers from collecting user information, he said.

"If you get a free service like Facebook, there's a catch. ... If you're not paying for the product, then you are the product," Zimmerman said. "What we're doing here is, we're making you pay for the product." Growing awareness and concern about data-collection practices should help to expand demand for the phone, he said.

The Blackphone is designed to protect users from "driftnet fishing" for user information by organized crime and government entities such as the National Security Agency, but it can't defend against targeted attacks, according to Zimmerman. "If NSA really, really wants to get into just your phone ... they're going to get into your phone," he said.

The companies will update the phones to protect against any vulnerabilities that may be discovered in the future, Geeksphone co-founder Javier Aguera said.

Building an encrypted communications service and a secure phone creates strange bedfellows, according to Zimmerman. A former anti-war activist, he found himself working with former U.S. Navy Seals to form Silent Circle. A hacker who sells zero-day attacks for a living is giving the company advice, he said. And while some people in the NSA probably aren't happy about the prospect of such a device, agencies in the U.S., Canada and Australia use Silent Circle and are interested in the Blackphone, Zimmerman said.

"It depends in which part of these intelligence agencies you're asking," he said.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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