A new hi-tech smartphone which claims to protect emails and phone calls even against the all-seeing eye of the American secret services was unveiled this week - part of a wave of new apps built to protect privacy.
The Blackphone is perhaps the ultimate object of desire for the paranoid - a modified Android phone which offers encrypted communications anywhere in the world, and protection from ‘prying eyes’ - designed by military experts and encryption veterans from a company, Silent Circle.
“We've been delighted by the reaction", says Silent Circle’s Managing Director Toby Weir-Jones, in an interview with Yahoo News. "The loss of privacy is expensive, for two reasons: first of all, it's often unclear that you've lost it, because it's taken from you covertly. And secondly, it's difficult to get privacy back after it's gone."
There are scant technical details on the Blackphone - the sleek black slab runs PrivatOS, a modified version of Android, and offers calls, texts, and video chat, but its makers are clear on who needs it: “every law-abiding citizen.”
The revelations from Edward Snowden about the global scale of American electronic espionage has sparked a trend for apps and gadgets designed to protect data - and offer privacy. Apps such as Confide offer privacy-focused messaging for business - messages appear a line at a time (to prevent covert screenshots of the whole message), then self-destruct.
Samsung's Galaxy S5 phone is rumoured to have built-in iris-scanning security - something that was previously restricted to high-security buildings.
Blackphone will be unveiled at Mobile World Congress in February. The sleek, black gadget allows users to make secure phone calls, protected by encryption, as well as using secure video chat, and storing files securely.
Silent Circle includes several ‘celebrities’ from the world of hardcore encryption and privacy - suddenly in the limelight in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the scale of U.S. government spying.
As well as a best-selling author and an ex-U.S. Navy Seal, Silent Circle features Phil Zimmerman, who wrote PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) in 1991, still the most widely used email encryption software on Earth.
“We’re delighted by the reaction,” says Weir-Jones, “People have adopted a position of: 'given the people involved, it's bound to be great'. We're flattered by that, but know we have to be realistic.”
Weir-Jones says that no phone can ever be spy-proof - one of Edward Snowden’s more recent revelations was that American operatives even spied on computers disconnected from the internet by installing radio chips inside them to beam data to receivers eight miles away. No technology can defend against such determined adversaries, Weir-Jones admits.
“The whole design goal for Blackphone is to make it as easy as possible to do all the normal smartphone-type activities -- phone calls, texting, internet activity -- as private and safe as possible without changing the basic use case for each of them,” Weir-Jones said.
Encrypted phones have been on sale before - such as the GSMK Cryptophone - but have been complex to use, and expensive. Silent Circle hopes that the steady flow of news about state spying could catalyse a sea-change in attitudes towards privacy.
Wikileaks’ Julian Assange, who refuses to use email due to its lack of security, communicates via SMS messages on encrypted phones. Blackphone hope to bring this technology closer to the mainstream.
“We liken it to the introduction of seatbelts in the auto industry,” says Weir-Jones. “ At first consumers rejected wearing them because of all sorts of old-style thinking - it was better to be thrown from the car, they were uncomfortable to wear, etc. -- but of course nowadays it's only a very small minority of drivers who hang on to those beliefs. We expect the thinking on privacy to shift eventually.”
British-based security expert Graham Cluley, a 20-year veteran of the industry, says the goals of Blackphone are laudable. “Most of us could take greater steps to make our lives more private, and make it harder for unauthorised parties (including governments) to spy upon our activities,” he says.
But Cluley adds that Blackphone is - at present - standing alone, and that is a risk in itself. Anything ‘unhackable’ is a magnet for hackers - both paid and unpaid.
“Saying anything is NSA-proof is a bit like a red flag to a bull,” Cluley says. “If a device like this becomes the de facto standard for those who wish to keep their conversations private from the authorities, you can bet your bottom dollar that glory-seeking hackers and intelligence agencies around the world will investigate ways in which they might be able to snoop upon it.”
“Even devices designed for secure communications might be compromised if the spies manage to get physical access to the device, or managed to meddle with it (or its components) before it was delivered to you in the first place.”
Even those of us whose lives are unlikely to interest America’s all-seeing National Security Agency can already take steps to protect their privacy, though.
The app that fends off Facebook
Snoopwall - for Android - monitors apps for signs of snooping, and stops them - a reassuring tool in a world where Facebook’s Android app suddenly began requesting control over Wi-Fi aerials, with no explanation, or warning.
Mission Impossible messaging
Confide, for iPhone offers self-deleting messages, similar to the popular photo service Snapchat, but aimed at business. Messages appear line by line, to prevent snoopers taking screenshots of the whole message.
Lastpass, for iPhone, Android and PC, offers a way to create and store secure passwords, which can help to prevent the temptation to reuse passwords, and prevent cybercriminals gaining access to email and other applications.
The app that encrypts your messages with 'unbreakable' code
Surespot, for Android, allows users to send voice messages and texts, protected by the same near-unbreakable 256-bit AES encryption approved by the U.S. government for transmitting information classified as “top secret”.
Silent Circle, makers of Blackphone, shut their own encrypted email service after rival Lavabit was subpoenaed by the U.S. government, and asked to hand over information. Services such as Countermail now offer similarly secure email, protected by encryption from end to end.
For spies, terrorists, or people trading in drugs or child pornography, such services probably will not offer protection - but for ordinary consumers, it can offer peace of mind.
The best protection of all, though, is to disconnect important data from the internet.
The hard drive that self-destructs
Encrypted USB drives allow you to store important information offline, and gadgets such as Iron Key’s drives offer a James Bond-esque level of protection - not only is the data inside protected by encryption, the device’s metal case is ruggedized to prevent thieves breaking it, and, its makers say, ““You can even set the device to self-destruct after a configurable number of break-in attempts.”
For a classier take, Porsche offer their own encrypted drives, created with computer company Lacie, saying, “melds design, performance and technology to give users a stylish accessory for any keychain, purse or briefcase.”
The real-world cloaking device
For the seriously paranoid, new gadgets even offer ‘cloaking’ against spies scanning mobile networks - and mobiles which stlll communicate while ‘off’, as some models allegedly do.
“Today millions of people are tracked through their mobile devices. It’s not just when you’re using your phone, its 24/7 everywhere you go,” say the creators of Off Pocket, a metal-fabric pouch which blocks all radio communication, so no one can listen in. “The Off Pocket gives you the option to turn everything Off.”
It’s perhaps a testament to the impact of Edward Snowden’s revelations that the first run of the Off Pocket sold out entirely last year.
Blackphone’s makers say that their hope is that the device will enable users to pass under the radar of surveillance systems which harvest massive amounts of data, “If a Blackphone user's activity is swept up in large-scale metadata collection, it will generally reveal less about the Blackphone user than a phone would which doesn't prioritise privacy and safety the way we do," says Weir-Jones. "This is a big step forward over what you can buy today.”