The Bourne Ultimatum

Updated Feb 24: Michael Janke, CEO of Silent Circle sent us this correction: ‘Silent Circle is not a US company, we are off-shore and have offices in London, (Washington) DC and Geneva.

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Picture the scene from The Bourne Ultimatum (2007):

Jason Bourne has set up a meeting with reporter Simon Ross at Waterloo Station in London. Ross had started writing a series of investigative articles in the newspaper (do people still read those?) about ‘Operation Treadstone’. Bourne, knowing that Treadstone is a piece of the puzzle he is trying to assemble about his past, needs to find out more.

The bad news is that the CIA has ‘tapped’ Ross talking about the related ‘Operation Blackbriar’ on a cellphone with his editor.

Luckily for movie fans, Ross and his editor did not each have a Blackphone, because if they had, they would have enjoyed a private encrypted conversation and the movie would have been less exciting – not to mention 15 minutes shorter.

Bourne is aware of this, so he knows that the train station will be crawling with agency men with guns looking for him.

In order to talk with Ross in private, Bourne needs to contact him without being seen or overheard. Bourne secretly slips a prepaid cell phone into Ross’s pocket and then calls him from another disposable phone. Since these are not secure Blackphones, Bourne knows that he has only a couple of minutes to direct Ross away from CIA surveillance before the agency taps the call.

Action, action, action: great for us, but not so much for Mr. Ross.

The frenetic pace is too much for poor Simon, and he bolts for an exit only to get shot for his troubles. [Note to self: if you want to stay alive, do NOT disregard Jason Bourne’s advice.]

And that brings us to the number one thing to know about any security device, as summed up very eloquently by Mike Janke, chief executive of Silent Circle, the creator/producer together with Spanish company Geeksphone.

“There is no such thing as a completely secure phone. Nothing is going to protect you from your own behavior. But out of the box, this phone does a lot of things to protect your privacy.” (Our emphasis.)

It’s an important message that applies to everything. The security software and hardware components in your home or on your computer are tools for you to use. The tools do the heavy lifting to protect you, but you have to use them consistently and ‘according to manufacturer’s suggested instructions’, perform updates, interpret popup messages appropriately, and so on.

Still, we’d like to think that a Blackphone just might have saved Mr. Ross’ life.

Now you’re thinking, “what’s a Blackphone, and how do I get one?”

Blackphone

It’s the new secure phone and Jason Bourne would have appreciated it. It’s called Blackphone – actually, it WILL BE called Blackphone; it is going to be introduced to the world at the end of February at the Mobile World Congress on February 24, where ‘pre-orders’ will be taken.

While the Silent Circle folks have started the promoting the phone, true to their name, they are keeping the details a bit hush-hush until their big launch.

Encrypted communication requires two secure points: think Alexander Graham Bell and the first phone. So, if you’re the first one in your circle of friends to have a Blackphone, you’ll have to wait until a buddy gets one too before you can enjoy a really private chat.

Silent Circle

Bundled service pricing is shown on their website and it actually looks pretty good. We note with interest that ‘Out-Circle Access’ is offered as a individual line item. Does that suggest that users may end up with two devices: a Blackphone for secure communication only, and that iPhone for calling grandma and the children’s teachers?

How soon will it be before we start seeing mom’s give their Blackphones to their children to play with while waiting in line at the grocery store, and to pacify them in restaurants?

For quite a while now, service providers have pushed the requirement that just about everything associated with smartphones requires location data. How will this jibe with the anonymity of the Blackphone? The manufacturer says that this will be a fully functional Android phone with the apps and everything that goes along with Android just with added security/privacy.

Since metadata can reveal just as much – and often much more – about a person as the content of a discussion, will service providers really go along with not keeping track of metadata? What will governments have to say about that?

The folks behind Blackphone carry a lot of clout in the field of security and include Phil Zimmermann, the creator of PGP encryption software, and computer security expert Jon Callas.  Even so, is it creepy or the ultimate irony that Silent Circle is based in the home town of the NSA and CIA and the FBI and the other alphabet agencies? [Update – Michael Janke, CEO of Silent Circle sent us this correction: ‘Silent Circle is not a US company, we are off-shore and have offices in London, (Washington) DC and Geneva.‘]

And, for what must surely be a joke, Janke indicated that the US Department of State was interested in distributing the Blackphones.

We’re looking forward to getting a pair of Blackphones in our hands for testing and a little privacy.

Suggestion to Silent Circle and their business partners: get Jason Bourne or Matt Damon or David Webb as the celebrity spokesperson for Blackphone.