All Tech Considered
2:30 am
Fri February 28, 2014

A Smartphone That Tries To Slip You Off The Grid

Originally published on Mon March 3, 2014 9:24 am

Mike Janke used to be a Navy SEAL sniper. These days he's taking on the government and corporate America. He's the founder of Blackphone, an Android-based smartphone with privacy as its main selling point.

It's not NSA-proof — in that everything is hackable if you try hard enough. But Janke says it's taking on the entire mobile economy that lets law enforcement and companies in way too easily.

Take apps that look free but mine your data to earn big dollars. Facebook tries to get your contacts, Google Maps tries to get your geolocation, Pandora gets your music preferences. Blackphone has a default setting: no — unless you proactively choose yes.

Blackphone also rebels against smartphone norms. Say you want to spend Sunday afternoon lost in a coffee shop or a clothing store. You might think you're off the grid, but your phone, using Wi-Fi, is talking to beacons "finding out where you've been, making offerings to you," Janke says. "What Blackphone does, it'll automatically stop that beacon activity, shut off any Wi-Fi pinging to protect you from those type of stalking things."

In addition to hiding identity, Blackphone stores user data in a secure vault in Switzerland — kind of like those no-questions-asked Swiss bank accounts. It sounds like the digital equivalent of wearing sunglasses and a trench coat everywhere. So I ask the obvious follow-up question: Is it mostly for criminals?

"No. Certainly because of the summer of [NSA whistleblower Edward] Snowden, it's about 20 to 25 percent of the world is really the people that are concerned about security, really concerned about their privacy," Janke says.

Boeing is also creating a super-secure smartphone, but it's aimed at defense customers. Most notably, that Android-based phone, similarly called Black, as detailed in an FCC filing earlier this week, would be tamper-proof — any attempts to physically break into it would cause it to self-destruct.

"Any attempt to break open the casing of the device would trigger functions that would delete the data and software contained within the device and make the device inoperable," Boeing said in its filing.

Janke's Blackphone is the first big push to bring military-grade privacy to everyday consumers. Blackphone starts shipping this summer and will sell for $629 — less than the latest iPhone without a wireless contract.

But not all privacy buffs are lining up to buy. I went to the RSA security conference in San Francisco and met with David Duncan, chief marketing officer with anti-spyware company Webroot.

"Webroot is available from the Google Play store for free, and Webroot provides a lot of the security functionality" that's available on a Blackphone, Duncan says.

Many products do help shield smartphones from data-mooching. But Blackphone is unique in that it encrypts text messages and even voice calls between users in the network. Still, Duncan says, that's not such added value. Wireless carriers will still keep records of Internet IP addresses you call from, and when you call out of network, they keep the phone numbers, too.

"That's all been on the public record with my cellular communications provider for many, many years," Duncan says.

Maybe he's a tough sell. So I wandered around and talked to at least 50 people, but most had never heard of Blackphone.

Blackphone makers plan to sell 2.5 million phones this year.

Copyright 2014 KQED Public Media. To see more, visit http://www.kqed.org.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And let's now turn to a subject we talked about in our business segment yesterday - ultra-secure smartphones. In the wake of the Edward Snowden NSA data-gathering scandal, there's been a lot of public outrage about privacy - or lack of. But our people willing to pay more to maintain privacy?

A new smartphone out this week might help answer that question. It's called Blackphone and KQED's Aarti Shahani met its maker in San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Mike Janke used to be a Navy SEAL sniper. Today, he's taking on the government and corporate America.

MIKE JANKE: We know we're creating enemies, but we're OK with that because this is the right thing to do.

SHAHANI: Janke is founder of Blackphone. The slim device is in fact black, with rounded curves and lighter weight than my Samsung Galaxy.

JANKE: It's actually faster than Samsung and an iPhone. It's benchmarking 12 percent faster than both of those.

SHAHANI: Blackphone's main selling point is privacy. It's not NSA-proof - in that everything is hackable if you try hard enough. But Janke says, it's taking on the entire mobile economy that lets law enforcement and companies in way too easily.

Take apps that look free, but mine your data to earn hundreds and thousands of dollars. Facebook tries to get your contacts, Google maps tries to get your geo-location, Pandora gets your music preferences. Blackphone has a default setting...

JANKE: No, no, no.

SHAHANI: ...unless you proactively choose yes.

Blackphone also rebels against smartphone norms. Say you want to spend Sunday afternoon lost a coffee shop or a clothing store, you might think you're off the grid, but your phone, using Wi-Fi, is talking to beacons.

JANKE: Finding out where you've been, making offerings to you. What Blackphone does - it'll automatically stop that beacon to protect you from those type of stalking things.

SHAHANI: In addition to hiding identity, Blackphone stores user data in a secure vault in Switzerland - kind of like those no-questions-asked Swiss bank accounts. It sounds like the digital equivalent of wearing sunglasses and a trench coat everywhere. So I ask the obvious follow-up question:

Is it mostly for criminals?

JANKE: No. Certainly because of the summer of Snowden, it's about 20 to 25 percent of the world is really the people that are concerned about security, really concerned about their privacy.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

SHAHANI: Boeing is creating a smartphone for Defense customers that's called just Black. Blackphone is the first big push to bring military-grade privacy to everyday consumers. Blackphone starts shipping this summer and sells for $629 - less than the latest iPhone.

But not all privacy buffs are lining up to buy. I go to a data security conference in town and meet up with David Duncan, chief marketing officer with anti-spyware company Webroot.

DAVID DUNCAN: Well, Webroot is available from the Google Play store for free, and Webroot provides a lot of the same security functionality from an application perspective, parts of the security functionality that are available on a Blackphone.

SHAHANI: Many products do help shield smartphones from data-mooching. But Blackphone is unique, in that encrypts text messages and even voice calls between users in the network.

Still, Duncan says, that's not such added-value. Wireless carriers will still keep records of Internet IP addresses you call from, and when you call out of network, they keep the phone numbers too.

DUNCAN: That's all been on the public record with my cellular communications provider for many, many years.

SHAHANI: Maybe he's a tough sell. So I wander around and talk to at least 50 people. Just about every conversation goes like this one with Rick Riggle and Candace Kika.

Are either of you guys going to buy that new smartphone called Blackphone? it's supposed to keep all your data safe.

RICK RIGGLE: Blackphone? No, I never heard of it.

CANDACE KIKA: I haven't heard of it. I have the iPhone 5 though, with the fingerprint.

SHAHANI: Blackphone makers plan to sell 2.5 million phones this year. Let's see if they can hit that goal without reverting to the snooping and stalking tricks of the trade.

For NPR News, I'm Aarti Shahani in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.