Phil Zimmermann has spent his life trying to save an endangered species - human privacy. His new product, Blackphone, allows “two humans to whisper in each other’s ears from across the world.”
Demand, he says, has been "huge” for the customised Android device which offers encrypted phone calls and texts which can’t be unscrambled even by spy agencies.
A majority of the companies on America’s Fortune 50 list - the top companies ranked by revenue - have already ordered. Blackphone will cost around £375 and be on sale in June.
Zimmermann, inventor of PGP, the most widely used system of encrypted email in the world (encryption means it’s protected by complex codes so snoopers are locked out) dislikes using email - at least to talk to journalists he doesn't know.
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Emails can be forwarded, copied, replied-to-all. He promises to call back later. His company already makes privacy software for phones and PCs - and is clear on who should buy Blackphone - “every law-abiding citizen.”
One mobile phone company - the Dutch company KPN - has ordered “hundreds of thousands” to sell to ordinary consumers - breaking a decades-old tradition that phone companies went along happily with police and government wiretaps.
"That is a hopeful sign to me," Zimmermann says. "In the past, they just rolled over."
“We are in the golden age of survellance,” says Zimmermann. "Whoever wants it can enjoy total information awareness - from cameras which read number plates automatically, to watching who calls whom, and what they say. If a politician is seen in a hotel with an attractive woman, facial recognition can pick him out.”
Blackphone, an Android device, running a special privacy-boosted version of the software called PrivatOS, aims to restore some of the balance - it also offers encrypted texts and emails, and built-in resistance against malicious software.
Users can switch off encryption for less sensitive calls - such as ordering a pizza.
Blackphone is unique. While Zimmermann’s technology already is used by soldiers and spies, it’s now in the hands of ordinary citizens. He hopes it ignites interest in governments - and how closely they are watching us.
Zimmermann has been fighting for privacy for most of his life, “I first tried to make a phone for encrypted calls in 1995 - but the technology wasn’t there yet. I had to wait until everyone had broadband.”
“Blackphone isn’t totally spy-proof - if someone really wants to listen in, they can stick a microphone on your wall. But when you see that green ‘Secure’ logo on screen, and say something sensitive, it has a tremendous effect on how comfortable you feel.”
Encrypted phone technology is already used - by armed forces around the world. Blackphone has already been ‘tested’ by intelligence agents, before handing devices using the technology to special forces such as the SAS.
“That’s how I know it works,” he says. ““It’s used by soldiers - and it’s been tested by the intelligence agencies of those countries. It works."
There have been previous encrypted handsets, but they were large, clunky devices - complex to operate, and not really boardroom material. Zimmermann says demand from large companies has been “huge”.
“A majority of the Fortune 50 companies - some of the biggest in the world - have placed orders,” he says.
Industrial espionage is hugely common around the world - and for companies it provides a quick, secure way to have sensitive conversations.
“In some countries wire-tapping is incredibly common - not just by the government, but by private individuals. In Brazil for example, a few thousand U.S. dollars is enough to pay someone at a telephone exchange to tap and record any phone calls you make - whether it’s to steal industrial secrets, or for espionage,” Zimmermann says.
“Edward Snowden made the world aware of what U.S intelligence were doing,” he says. ““He showed that the entire population was being spied on - not just Al Qaeda suspects, everyone. They were looking for a needle in a haystack, and just loaded the haystack onto a truck and sifted through it.”
Zimmermann warns that the data isn’t going away - information gleaned from previous wiretaps may be used in political battles in the future.
"This sort of data, people have a habit of reaching back into the past, and using it," he says. "We will see battles in the future that the NSA have sown the seeds of now."
“What amused me among the Snowden documents was the NSA boasting of how many things they had broken into - but they had never broken into anything I ever designed,” he says. “I was even mentioned in a memo. It was research into new technology I was developing, and it was headed, ‘This can’t be good’. It warms my heart they have such respect for my work.”