This Company Wants to Be the Apple of Super-Secure Smartphones

And it has the marketing chops, at least, to do it.
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Can technology alone keep your phone data secure?

A former Navy SEAL and a famous cryptographer seem to think so. The D.C.-based security company they co-founded, Silent Circle, has announced a new smartphone that puts “privacy and control ahead of anything else.” It’s called Blackphone.

“Cryptophones,” like those made by GSMK and Hoox, are nothing new—they’ve been around in some cases for years. But the security of phone data has become a much more mainstream concern since Edward Snowden revealed the size and scope of NSA spying last year. It’s that anxiety-steeped zeitgeist that Silent Circle’s capitalizing on—that suspicion that your own government might be reading your email or tracking your location.

Now, it’s unclear whether a private mobile phone could ever be truly private. Cell phones function by checking into cell towers, and law enforcement agencies can requisition from phone companies which towers have been checked into by which phones. Even before the Snowden revelations, we knew that they regularly do.

As the journalist Quinn Norton wrote yesterday, “All phones are location trackers no matter what else. It's just physics.”

So Blackphone may be a flawed concept from the beginning. We’ll find out over the next few months how it beats these expectations, as its security mitre is tested by experts and amateurs.

What interests me is the aesthetics of their first teaser trailer. It exudes the totalizing vibe of an Apple commercialThis is the world, the ad says, the ad you will navigate with your phone. The Blackphone, like an iPhone, becomes an extension of your identity—a tool, even, that makes having an identity possible.

“Technology was supposed to make our lives better,” intones the ad’s narrator. “Instead, we have lost our privacy. We have become enslaved.”

An Inception-style electric guitar chugs along below. Screenshots of articles about Edward Snowden float onto the screen.

“Blackphone is a journey built upon privacy, control, and security, wrapped in a high-end security, built by a very innovative, all-star steam of cryptography, security, and mobile innovators,” says one of the company’s co-founders.

Briefly ignore this description’s obscure physics and focus on the business promise being made. Innovators both cryptographic and mobile worked on this phone. It prizes control but it remains more than a product: It’s a journey. It’s a tool of the spirit.

Apple and its millieu of personal computer companies flowed from a free-wheeling, Bay Area-located counterculture of mental liberation. Blackphone sells itself on this same kind of liberation, but the freedom it hawks isn’t from cultural strictures—it’s from outside governments. It’s an affecting aesthetic, and perhaps we’ll see more companies deploy it. Where Apple and its ilk sold a world freed from cultural limits, a new group of companies are already doing the same around a supposed freedom from politics. 

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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