Blackphone: The Future of Secure Smartphones?

With stories of spying and security breaches all over the news, it seems like privacy concerns are at the forefront of everyone’s thoughts.

But while it seems like everyone’s suddenly talking about how the NSA is spying on all of us, our credit card information is getting stolen, and our healthcare privacy is at risk, that doesn’t mean that the average consumer places a priority on privacy.

In fact, it almost seems the opposite is true. Product choices available today clearly show that convenience trumps all. After all, most people would rather have a speedy laptop with a powerful processor and gorgeous display, than one of the two old laptops the Free Software Foundation endorses for “respecting your freedom.” We value the convenience of having a GPS to tell us how to go anywhere and get home again, even though we know it’s also recording our every movement. And we love not having to memorize every friend’s phone number anymore, even though we open up all that information to being accessed by every dubious 3rd party app you download.

But though convenience may be winning the battle today, the tides of war may soon be shifting.

Now that security and privacy concerns are a news constant, they may be influencing product development, and eventually consumer choice. People are looking for ways to enjoy the latest gadgets without compromising their privacy, and smart businesses will follow that shifting demand.

That’s what inspired the new Blackphone, a smartphone that uses a custom, secure version of Android called PrivatOS, and comes bundled with various privacy tools preinstalled.

When it comes to the war between convenience and security, which will win out in the end? Will people be willing to pay the high price tag of privacy? Is Blackphone truly the future of smartphone technology? Here’s how it stacks up to the competition.

blackphone compared

Transcript: What You Need to Know about the Blackphone

The dangers of tracking software and personal data theft have made mobile security a household concern.

The proposed smartphone solution, the Blackphone, is here. But what exactly does it protect you against and how does it compare to other smartphones?

What Are the Security and Privacy Risks of Blackberry, iOS and Android?

The operating system for leading smartphones are subject to a number of vulnerabilities and potential leaks.

BlackBerry 10

Is malware distributed via apps?

  • Rarely – You can only download apps from the BlackBerry World store, where all apps have been vetted by TrendMicro.

Can 3rd parties access my personal information?

  • Unlikely – Apps must adhere to BlackBerry’s strict policies on personally identifiable information, requiring transparency and user consent.

Is my location automatically tracked?

  • Yes – Through apps require user consent for geo-location and user tracking.

Is my location automatically tracked?

  • App screening – Stops malicious and tracking software being planted.
  • App permissions – Provides control over what data can be accessed.
  • BlackBerry Protect –Free app that keeps data secure if phone is lost or stolen.

Windows

Is malware distributed via apps?

  • No – But Microsoft Store has featured many fraudulent apps. However, Microsoft is cracking down on this.

Can 3rd parties access my personal information?

  • Yes – The data accessed by each app must be administrated by the user through the Master Switch and Settings.

Is my location automatically tracked?

  • Yes – Windows phone tracks Wi-Fi data at all times for geo-location and user tracking unless disabled.

Is my location automatically tracked?

  • Remote data wiping – If lost or stolen, data can be erased by owner.
  • Lock & Hide – Free app that locks photos in a password-protected ‘vault’.
  • Rights Management Service – Data and documents can only be viewed by those with permission.

Apple iOS

Is malware distributed via apps?

  • Rarely – You can only download apps from the App Store, where all apps have been vetted by Apple.

Can 3rd parties access my personal information?

  • Yes – A study by an online security company found that many apps asked for access to functions, geo-location, address book, email, and calendars.

Is my location automatically tracked?

  • Yes – iOS automatically tracks and records users’ locations unless they disable the function.

Is my location automatically tracked?

  • Touch ID – Fingerprint recognition feature
  • Erase data authentication – Stops thieves erasing data, but merely requires device password.
  • Disconnect Mobile – This app blocks tracking software planted by ads.

Android

Is malware distributed via apps?

  • Yes – Users can download from Google Play, but also 3rd party sources, which can sometimes be malicious.

Can 3rd parties access my personal information?

  • Yes – The same study that, as well as location information, many apps asked for permission to access, read and even send SMS messages.

Is my location automatically tracked?

  • Yes – Android devices remain logged on to Wi-Fi at all times for geo-location and user tracking.

Is my location automatically tracked?

  • Disconnect Mobile – This app blocks tracking software planted by ads.
  • Sophos Mobile Security – This app scans every installed app on mobile and SD cards for malware.
  • Phone Encryption – Built in feature, your phone can be encrypted through editing the settings.

Blackphone

Is malware distributed via apps?

  • Yes – Users must download from 3rd party sources, which can sometimes be malicious.

Can 3rd parties access my personal information?

  • Highly unlikely – Private browsing using Disconnect’s VPN means users enjoy enhanced security and privacy protection. However, some vulnerabilities may exist.

Is my location automatically tracked?

  • No – PrivatOS is a tailored version of Android’s KitKat with user-tracking and geo-location functions removed.

Is my location automatically tracked?

  • Anonymous data wiping – Does not require a centralized cloud account.
  • Bundled apps – The Blackphone comes with few apps, all privacy-enabled.
  • Secure operating system – PrivatOS allows for total control of data sharing and app functionality.

How Does it Compare to the iPhone and BlackBerry?

BlackBerry Q10

General

  • Release date: April 2013
  • Form factor: Touchscreen
  • Dimensions (mm): 119.60 x 66.80 x 10.35
  • Weight (g): 139
  • Battery capacity (mAh): 2100
  • Removable battery: Yes
  • Colors: White, black

Display

  • Screen size (inches): 3.1
  • Touchscreen: Yes
  • Touchscreen type: Capacitive
  • Resolution (pixels): 720×720
  • Pixels per inch (PPI): 330

Hardware

  • Processor: 1.5GHz dual-core
  • RAM: 2GB
  • Internal storage: 2GB
  • Expandable storage: 16GB

Camera

  • Rear camera: 8 megapixels
  • Front camera: 2 megapixels
  • Flash: Yes

Software

  • Operating System: BlackBerry 10 OS

Connectivity

  • Wi-Fi: Yes
  • Wi-Fi standards supported: 802.11 a/b/g/n
  • GPS: Yes
  • Bluetooth: Yes, v4.00
  • GSM/CDMA: GSM/CDMA
  • 3G: 4G

Sensors

  • Compass/Magnetometer: Yes
  • Proximity sensor: Yes
  • Accelerometer: Yes
  • Ambient light sensor: Yes
  • Gyroscope: Yes

Apple iPhone 5s

General

  • Release date: September 2013
  • Form factor: Touchscreen
  • Dimensions (mm): 123.80 x 58.60 x 7.60
  • Weight (g): 112
  • Battery capacity (mAh): 1570
  • Removable battery: No
  • Colors: Space gray, gold, silver

Display

  • Screen size (inches): 4
  • Touchscreen: Yes
  • Touchscreen type: Capacitive
  • Resolution (pixels): 640×1136
  • Pixels per inch (PPI): 326

Hardware

  • Processor: 1.3GHz dual-core
  • RAM: 1GB
  • Internal storage: 16GB
  • Expandable storage: No

Camera

  • Rear camera: 8 megapixels
  • Front camera: 1.2 megapixels
  • Flash: Yes

Software

  • Operating System: iOS

Connectivity

  • Wi-Fi: Yes
  • Wi-Fi standards supported: 802.11 a/b/g/n
  • GPS: Yes
  • Bluetooth: Yes, V4.00
  • GSM/CDMA: GSM
  • 3G: Yes

Sensors

  • Compass/Magnetometer: Yes
  • Proximity sensor: Yes
  • Accelerometer: Yes
  • Ambient light sensor: Yes
  • Gyroscope: Yes

GeeksPhone – Blackphone

General

  • Release date: February 2014
  • Form factor: Touchscreen
  • Dimensions (mm): 136.67x 69.09 x 8.38
  • Weight (g): 119
  • Battery capacity (mAh): 2000
  • Removable battery: No
  • Colors: Black

Display

  • Screen size (inches): 4.7
  • Touchscreen: Yes
  • Touchscreen type: Capacitive
  • Resolution (pixels): 720×1280
  • Pixels per inch (PPI): N/A

Hardware

  • Processor: 2GHz quad-core
  • RAM: 1GB
  • Internal storage: 16GB
  • Expandable storage: No

Camera

  • Rear camera: 8 megapixels
  • Front camera: 5 megapixels
  • Flash: Yes

Software

  • Operating System: PrivatOS (Android 4.4 variant)

Connectivity

  • Wi-Fi: Yes
  • Wi-Fi standards supported: 802.11 b/g/n
  • GPS: Yes
  • Bluetooth: Yes, v4.00
  • GSM/CDMA: GSM
  • 3G: Yes

Sensors

  • Compass/Magnetometer: Yes
  • Proximity sensor: Yes
  • Accelerometer: No
  • Ambient light sensor: Yes
  • Gyroscope: No

Pros and Cons of the Blackphone

Pros

  • No location tracking – It uses a custom-designed version of the Android 4.4 KitKat operating system called PrivatOS which removes all user-tracking and geo-location functions.
  • Encryption – Its suite of apps, created by Silent Circle, automatically encrypts information exchanged with other app users. All internet searches are encrypted and rendered anonymous via the Disconnect service.
  • Remote Wipe – Its remote wipe function means users can remotely delete all data on the phone if it’s lost, stolen or otherwise compromised.

Cons

  • Loss of functionality – It lacks the usability and performance offered by more established smartphones.
  • 3rd party app stores – Customers can’t use the App or Google Play store and have to use 3rd party app stores.
  • It’s still unproven – A security researcher at BlackHat in August 2014 claimed to have ‘rooted’ (gained unauthorized system privileges to) a Blackphone in just 5 minutes.

However, the main security issue had been patched prior to the expo and required use intent and contact with the device. In short, to hack a Blackphone, the hacker would either have to purchase it himself or coerce an extremely naive user – a fact ignored by most reports.

The Blackphone may suffer from being a first-generation product in an already established market. But for those willing to trade some functionality for security and privacy, it’s a step in the right direction.

Sources

  • NSA Spying Scandal: What We Have Learned – theguardian.com
  • Blackphone Rooted at Defcon: Part 1 – medium.com
  • Everything You Wanted to Know About the Security-focused Blackphone – arstechnica.com
  • Exclusive: A Review of the Blackphone, the Android for the Paranoid – arstechnica.com
  • Government and Corporate Surveillance Draw Wide Concern – washingtonpost.com
  • iOS 7: Understanding Location Services – support.apple.com
  • Russian Hackers Amass Over a Billion Internet Passwords – nytimes.com
  • Android Permission Model Sucks Compared to Apple iOS – pcmag.com
  • When Malware Goes Mobile – sophos.com
  • The iPhone 5S Review – anandtech.com
  • iPhone 5s – apple.com
  • Blackberry Q10 Specifications – blackberry.com
  • Blackphone – blackphone.ch
  • BlackBerry Works with Trend Micro to Expand Protection for Customers Against Malware, Privacy Issues in Third-Party Applications – blackberry.com
  • Guidelines for Personally Identifiable Information in the BlackBerry® World™ Storefront – blackberry.com
  • Windows® Phone 8 Privacy Statement – windowsphone.com
  • Why Google Banned a Privacy Tool Called ‘Disconnect Mobile’ From the Android App Store – businessinsider.com
  • Android L Will Have Device Encryption On by Default – arstechnica.com

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