Want to make your mobile use more private? Then a couple of announcements coming out of this year’s Mobile World Congress may interest you.
For one thing, we now know pricing details for the Blackphone, a handset that’s designed around privacy. Meanwhile, the carrier group Deutsche Telekom has revealed privacy-enhancing customizations to Mozilla’s Firefox OS, and promised an app that will encrypt the voice and text communications of its customers.
You’re never going to be entirely private with a mobile handset, because such devices have to track you in order to work, but that doesn’t mean advances can’t be made in that direction.
Blackphone is an attempt to tune as many elements of the handset as possible to make it more private, from its PrivatOS version of Android to the suite of apps that comes with it. As we explained last month, it comes from a credible team with a strong history in the field, and while the target audience is business folks, it’s still far more mass-market than the kinds of specialist devices used by top politicians, for example.
As we learned on Monday, the device will retail at $629 plus shipping and taxes. That’s a fairly standard price for a solidly-specified handset (an at-least-2GHz quad-core chipset, 4.7-inch screen and so on) but it can be seen as an outright bargain if you factor in the services in the bundle.
This includes 2 years of the Silent Circle tools for encrypted voice, text and contacts, which cost $99 per year if you buy them separately. Also in the mix are 3 one-year subscriptions to these services for friends and family (handy, as both sides of the conversation need to be using the tool if encryption is to be effective), as well as two-year subscriptions to Disconnect (private search, including a VPN app) and SpiderOak (secure cloud storage).
In total, Blackphone company SGP Technologies reckons the bundle is worth just north of $1,500, which is why this is a good deal. The handset will be available direct from SGP or through carrier partners. Unsurprisingly, the first of those is the Dutch telco group KPN, which became a Silent Circle reseller last week.
Deutsche Telekom’s privacy drive
Over to Deutsche Telekom now. The carrier group is making a proper meal of the surveillance scandal, touting its security credentials in the wake of the Snowden revelations, and it’s not stopping now.
First off, on Sunday DT revealed close work with Mozilla on customizing Firefox OS for customers’ privacy needs, as part of a joint initiative called Future of Mobile Privacy. DT is one of the main carriers pushing Firefox OS (it also announced new models and markets) and it’s come up with three new features for the HTML5-centric platform: Guest Mode, Find My Phone, and Location Blur.
Guest mode does what it says on the tin: it makes it possible to hand someone else your phone and not have them see your call and browsing history, or address books. It’s interesting to see this on cellphones – Android, for example, allows multiple accounts for tablets but not handsets. Find My Phone, too, is a familiar concept, though DT’s implementation doesn’t require central registration of the device.
Location Blur, meanwhile, allows the user to give different apps different levels of location accuracy – a navigation app will need fine-grained location, for example, whereas a weather service should content itself with relative vagueness.
Of course, most DT customers don’t use Firefox OS, and the company’s T-Systems enterprise unit is apparently working with the encrypted phone service firm GSMK on a security app that will be properly unveiled at CeBIT in March.
According to The Guardian, DT and GSMK’s app will be available for Android first, then iOS. It will encrypt conversations and text messages – by the sounds of it in a similar fashion to Silent Circle, though details remain light for now.
Indeed, deep technical detail is still scarce for most of these new privacy-enhancing systems, but it will come out in time (Blackphone is open-source for example, allowing auditing by anyone) and the trend is in itself heartening. If you want to get people using encryption, carriers need to throw their weight behind such initiatives and services need to be priced right. In this first year After Snowden, the Blackphone/KPN and DT announcements bode well for the future — and they’re just the start.