Mobile gets more secure, but at a price
- By Patrick Marshall
- Oct 01, 2015
Trust the Swiss, with their tradition of privacy protections, to deliver a smartphone that offers high security while still offering the kind of performance and access to popular apps many consumers demand.
The Blackphone 2, just released by the Swiss company Silent Circle, runs on a (highly) modified version of Android. Like the first version of the Blackphone, the Blackphone 2 offers encrypted communications. Unlike, its predecessor, however, the Blackphone 2 also allows users to download applications from the Google Play store.
Encryption: Although there’s a lot more to the Blackphone 2’s security than encrypted communications, that encryption is what will draw the most security-conscious users.
The Blackphone 2 comes with one year’s free usage of Silent Phone, the company’s AES-128 encryption service that runs on a private cloud VPN and that can handle both voice calls and text messaging. After the first year, the service costs $10 per month. Users don’t, by the way, have to buy a Blackphone 2 to take advantage of Silent Phone; the app is also available for Android and iOS.
App permissions: The Blackphone 2 also has some privacy features for those of us who aren’t engaged in the kinds of activities that call for encrypted communications. I especially like the granular control the device gives the user over what data and phone features downloaded apps can access. Silent Circle’s OS checks out an app’s code while it is being installed and allows users to selectively toggle permissions. Users can, for example, prevent specific apps from accessing their contacts, location data or vibrate function. And many users will be surprised to see how many types of data and functions some apps want to access that seem to have no connection to the application’s function.
Curiously, there’s no antivirus application preloaded on the phone, though users can download and install antivirus apps from the Google Play store.
User profiles: The Blackphone 2 also offers nearly seamless sandboxing of user profiles, thanks to the custom-designed Qualcomm Snapdragon processor’s partitioning feature. Users can set up separate “spaces,” each with its own privacy settings, including app permissions. This makes it easier to keep sensitive apps and data secure while still allowing the use of popular, non-sensitive and non-secure apps.
Security: Security threats are, of course, moving targets, and it would be foolish to rely on the built-in security of any device. Unfortunately, OS developers and wireless service providers are often lackadaisical in providing updates and patches when new threats emerge. There’s no assurance that Silent Circle will be faster at responding to threats with updates, but it’s reassuring to know that the company can deliver its own updates and patches over the air without waiting from carriers. And since the company is selling its device based on its security rather than its speakers or cameras, we can assume Silent Circle will have reason to respond in timely fashion.
Hardware: The Blackphone 2 also sports the design of a consumer-friendly smartphone rather than a clunky, joyless institutional secure device. Built around the Qualcomm Snapdragon 615 1.7GHz octa-core processor and carrying 3 GB of system memory, the Blackphone 2 has the infrastructure to handle resource-draining applications. And the 32 GB of on-board storage can be supplemented with a micro-SD card.
Networks: The Blackphone 2 can be used on GSM networks. Silent Circle does not plan to release a version for CDMA networks, including the LTE-enhanced networks of Verizon.
Bottom line: Slick as it is – with a very sharp 5.5-inch, 1080x1920 screen – is the Blackphone 2 going to attract many consumers when it carries a $799 price tag? Not likely. But it should attract interest from organizations and enterprises that need to ensure more secure mobile communications and computing. And the rest of us can look forward to many of the Blackphone 2 features becoming more affordable in the future.
Remember BlackBerry? The beleaguered company’s devices used to be the device of choice in government because of their manageability and security. The Canada-based company has just announced and previewed the BlackBerry Priv, with “Priv” meaning “private.” That device is expected to ship before the end of 2015.
Like Silent Circle, BlackBerry has chosen to build its effort on top of the Android operating system.
Security: While specific information about the security architecture of the Priv is not available, it seems from hints in the media that BlackBerry is not doing as deep a dive as Silent Circle, either into the OS or into the supporting processor design. It is most likely that the first versions of Priv will ship with a fairly standard implementation of Android 5.1.1 augmented with grsecurity, a security enhancement to the underlying Linux kernel that hardens the OS by providing access controls and protections against a variety of memory corruption exploits.
It is expected that BlackBerry will also endow the Priv with the BlackBerry Safeguard suite of security tools – including Picture Password, Password Keeper and the like – though it is not known if the suite will be expanded.
Hardware: While the technical specifications of the Priv have not been released, it is rumored to be employing the Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 processor and 3 GB of system memory.
The most noticeable design feature of the Priv is its sliding 5.4-inch, 1440x2560-pixel display. The screen slides upward to reveal a QWERTY keyboard. This will please many tried-and-true BlackBerry users who prefer physical keyboards.
Networks: The Priv is expected to support both GSM and LTE networks, and to be offered by AT&T, Sprint and Verizon.
Bottom Line: No pricing is available yet for the BlackBerry Priv.
Patrick Marshall is a freelance technology writer for GCN.