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Ultra-secure Blackphone to run Android-based PrivatOS

Jan 17, 2014 — by Eric Brown 4,403 views

Geeksphone and Silent Circle announced an Android-derived, ultra-secure “Blackphone,” and images of Geeksphone’s Intel-based “Revolution” phone broke cover.

The recommended reforms to National Security Agency snooping announced by President Obama today are not likely to stem the recent trend of tech products promising to keep data secure from prying governmental agencies. The latest, greatest device promising to NSA-proof your digital life is the Blackphone, a collaboration between Firefox OS phone vendor Geeksphone and Silent Circle, a cryptography software development firm that counts PGP creator Phil Zimmermann as its President.

Phil Zimmermann

The Blackphone will launch at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Feb. 24-27, with pre-orders beginning the same week. The smartphone “is the world’s first smartphone which prioritizes the user’s privacy and control, without any hooks to carriers or vendors,” says Silent Circle. The phone will maintain privacy and security while “giving you the freedom to choose your carrier, your apps, and your location,” says the company.


The unlocked GSM phone will run a homegrown, Android-based OS called PrivatOS on an unstated processor that is claimed to be “among the top performers from any manufacturer.” Phone calls, texts, file exchange, web browsing, and video chat will be secured, and activities will be anonymized via a VPN, say the developers. The Blackphone will also ship with tools that let you “take ownership of your mobile presence and digital footprints,” says the company.

Mike Janke

Silent Circle, headed up by CEO Mike Janke, a former Navy Seal, released a peer-to-peer based Silent Circle encryption toolsuite, including a Silent Mail secure email service, in February of last year. In August, the company closed the Silent Mail service, due to “the insecure nature of email protocols and preemptively avoiding the outside (read: FISA) pressures,” according to Engadget. The story was referring to powers granted to the NSA by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). The other Silent Circle apps are still available, however.

Silent Circle isn’t the only company that intends to thwart snooping from carriers, vendors, or government agencies. Others include the Citizen Web Project’s Arch Linux based ArkOS distro, initially available on the Raspberry Pi, as well as a planned, Linux-based Lima storage device from Cloud Guys Corp. The unlocked, untethered nature of the Blackphone also reminds us of the open source Neo900, an upcoming OpenMoko and Nokia N900 reboot. In Digital Circle’s Blackphone announcement, however, it did not use the term “open source.”

Even the Chinese government, itself no stranger to claims of unwarranted snooping, is getting in on the NSA-proofing act. A Jan. 17 report by IDG News Service says that Shanghai Liantong Network Communications Technology and the government-linked Chinese Academy of Sciences are collaborating on a Linux-based OS called China Operating System (COS). COS will run on “PCs, smartphones, tablets, and TVs,” says the story. The developers were said to be concerned about secret U.S. surveillance programs, as well as the security gaps in Android and open source alternatives like Ubuntu.

China has promised such alternatives OSes before, but has never followed through. Other governments that have spun off Linux distros in the past, due in part to fears of U.S. spying include Russia and Cuba. We suspect not having to pay the Microsoft tax may have had something to do with these projects, as well.

Geeksphone Revolution images pop up

Blackphone co-developer Geeksphone, which is presumably working on the hardware design, is known for developing the unlocked Keon, Peak, and Peak+ smartphones, all of which run Firefox OS. In late December, the Spanish firm announced it was developing a Revolution smartphone due in the first quarter of 2014 that will ship with Android, but can also run Firefox OS and other OSes. Now, as reported by Liliputing, a German site called MobileGeeks published [translated] alleged images of the phone.

Leaked image of Geeksphone Revolution
(click image to enlarge; source: MobileGeeks)

According to Liliputing, the Revolution design looks to be almost identical to that of the ZTE Geek Android phone. It would make sense that ZTE is manufacturing the phone for the more designer-oriented Geeksphone, considering that both firms are Firefox OS vendors, and that both phones are notable for being based on Intel Atom “Clover Trail+” system-on-chips. (The “Geek” nomenclature may or may not be a clue.)

In Geeksphone’s barebones announcement in December, the company said the unlocked Revolution would run on Intel’s 1.6GHz Atom Z2560, and would offer a 4.7-inch, IPS qHD display, a 2000mAh battery, and an “HD-capable 8MP camera with flash and expandable storage.” The ZTE Geek runs on the very similar CT+ Atom Z2580, and has an 8-megapixel camera, but it offers a slightly larger screen at five inches, and it has 1280 x 720 resolution instead of the Revolution’s qHD (960 x 540 pixels). As Liliputing notes, the speaker grill, camera, and flash are also positioned slightly differently on the two phones, Other Geek features include 1GB RAM, 8GB of onboard flash, and a front-facing 1-megapixel camera.

Liliputing also noted there was no evidence of dual-booting Android and Firefox OS, or any other suggestion of firmware in the photos. In our reading of the original Revolution announcement, however, it wasn’t clear that the phone would dual-boot the OSes, only that it would support both.

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5 responses to “Ultra-secure Blackphone to run Android-based PrivatOS”

  1. LinuxGeek says:

    Very nice but the presence of such security will red-flag a phone account and cause extra attention. Next to no one has any content that is that private or secure unless they are engaged in activity that Homeland Secutity is looking for in the first place. Best thing is to mainstream and don’t do illegal stuff that attracts this kind of device.

    • Perpetualrabbit says:

      `Next to no one has any content that is that private or secure unless they are engaged in activity that Homeland Secutity is looking for in the first place´

      Really? Being involved in any (non-violent) activism such as the Occupy movement , or the Greens or Tea Party or Israeli-Palestinian Peace Movement will make you a target in the USA. Your country is no China, Russia or Iran yet, but slowly but surely it is moving in that direction.

      `Best thing is to mainstream´

      Right. Let’s throw anyone who is not mainstream to the wolves. Like _you_ LinuxGeek: your nickname shows a fondness of an OS that is decidedly not mainstream. It’s the hacker OS, and pretty secure. Harder to get into for Homeland Security, NSA and so on. If you use Linux, you must have something to hide! If you have something to hide, you must be helping the terrorists!

      Go wash you mouth with SOAP LinuxGeek

    • CaptainObvious says:

      That’s a pretty naîve view. It would be nice to believe that the privacy and rights of law abiding Journalist haven’t been violated by courts while trying to protect sources. LinuxGeek, you really need to stay up on current events before making such ignorant remarks. I hope that the point you were trying to make is that anonymity may best confidentiality. That is a very good argument, which is constantly debated.

  2. a says:

    Despite what many people want to believe, collected data is not hard to sift through. These privacy violations, to the average person, are not dangerous because we are doing anything illegal, they are dangerous because if we ever become a target for *any* reason, they can pull *any* piece of information to do what they want with. It’s the same principle as traffic tickets. If a cop follows anyone on the road long enough, they can find something to ticket someone for to help meet their quota. It may not be what they were looking for, but if they want something, they find something. We don’t need virtual traffic policing. Especially when we are throwing hackers in jail for longer sentences than the rapists they exposed.

  3. LinuxGeek says:

    The Big Data searchers are not looking for routine traffic stops – they are looking for trends in traffic that by profile pose a risk to the US.

    I design embedded products that are widely available and rugged. If you own a wide screen TV or an android phone, you are running Linux. No soap needed.

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