New Blackphone could help lawyers safeguard client information


Victor Li writes the ABA Journal's
LawScribbler column.

While covering this year’s ABA Techshow, I reported on a session that focused on tools and services available to lawyers concerned about maintaining client confidentiality in the face of increased governmental surveillance, particularly from the National Security Agency.

One of the most interesting things that I learned (and there were many) was that there’s a phone coming out that promises to be “NSA-resistant.” In June, SGP Technologies, a joint venture of Silent Circle and Geeksphone, will release the Blackphone, a smartphone that encrypts all data, messages and calls coming into and out of the phone.

The phone, which will retail for $629, is an unlocked (not limited to one service provider) device that includes all the bells and whistles found on most smartphones—a camera, Web browser and Wi-Fi capabilities. But what makes it unique is that it runs PrivatOS, a modified version of the Android operating system, and contains Silent Circle’s suite of privacy apps for secure calling and texting. Blackphone utilizes virtual private network technology for its Web browser and boasts secure data storage in the cloud from SpiderOak.

According to Toby Weir-Jones, CEO of SGP Technologies, the phone has been in the works for a while and was not developed in response to Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA eavesdropping. But he acknowledges the NSA scandal has helped SGP market the Blackphone: SGP has been taking orders for device since the end of February and pre-orders have already sold out.

“We’ve been planning it for over a year now,” says Jones. “The underlying tech on the phone has been available for years from Silent Circle. But what we kept hearing from our nonspecialist users was that they wanted things to be easier.”

In essence, Jones says, they wanted to have a device that they knew was secure and not have to worry about buying or downloading secure apps.

Blackphone logo

There are limits to Blackphone’s ability to keep users off the grid, and SGP cautions that nothing is NSA-proof. Meanwhile, encrypted email is noticeably absent from the list of Blackphone’s features, and Blackphone users must communicate with other Blackphone users in order to get the full benefits of the phone’s privacy functions. SGP is offering gift subscriptions to encourage users to get others to sign on, but the email issue remains unresolved.

SGP is working on an email replacement called the Dark Mail Technical Alliance. Until then, Jones recommends Blackphone users use secure texting if they wish to transmit confidential messages and files.

Jones says Blackphone has already generated interest in the legal industry. “A number of attorneys, stockbrokers and others dealing with sensitive, high volume communications have asked about the product and placed pre-orders,” says Jones. “We’ve also gotten inquiries from IT departments at large firms asking about bulk purchase programs for the phone.”

And that’s not all the phone has generated. Last week Silent Circle announced it is getting $30 million in funding from investors including Ross Perot Jr. and private fund Cain Capital. “Silent Circle will use these investments to further accelerate its rapid growth and momentum dominating the secure communications market and to meet the overwhelming demand for Blackphone,” the firm said in a press release.

John Simek, the vice president of Sensei Enterprises who conducted the Techshow session, says that while Blackphone could catch on with lawyers, they have other tools at their disposal, like an app called RedPhone that encrypts conversations–provided both parties have the app installed.

“It’s an interesting concept,” says Simek. “At least a company is starting to talk about encrypting a data stream.” He says others should eventually follow suit, pointing out that Google is already moving towards encrypting everything, so it should only be a matter of time before Android is encrypted, too.

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