In Depth: Is this the age of the ultra-secure smartphone?

In Depth: Is this the age of the ultra-secure smartphone?

There was a time when BlackBerry was the phone maker of choice for those who wanted the best security the market could offer. Work in Washington or run a multinational corporation? Then have we got the QWERTY phone for you.

It’s no secret BlackBerry is no longer what it once was, yet even as the Canadian company’s fortunes continue to fall, a new host of firms have begun making "secure phones" to take Waterloo’s place.

And these companies are already making smartphone security tighter than it’s ever been before.

Boeing and GeeksPhone, two very different contenders that are offering strikingly similar products, are leading this ultra-secure charge. They even have similar names; GeeksPhone introduced the Blackphone in January, while its main rival is the Boeing Black.

Devices like these were once reserved for the rich and powerful, but now the conversation about security is louder than ever and consumers are bit by bit gaining super-secure smartphone access.

Security as a selling point

One need only look at Apple, arguably the industry’s most prominent trendsetter, taking advanced security mainstream by adding a fingerprint sensor to the iPhone 5S. It’s not exactly perfect, but it shows that smartphone security that goes beyond a simple passcode is a common concern.

And given the events of the past year or so – what with the NSA and other governments’ spy agencies apparently checking your phone, hacking into your webcam and reading your diary – it’s not hard to understand why the stakes seem higher than ever.

iphone fingerprint

Just compare the language we used to describe the company Trustonic’s efforts to make phones more secure back in 2012 with how the Blackphone was described this week.

Back then we wanted phones to be "as secure as your bank," now they need to compare to Fort Knox itself.

But can these new secure phones really help protect your personal info and private data from prying eyes?

The Boeing Black

In the black corner, we’ve got the Boeing Black. With a name like that and an introductory video with music like something out of a 007 flick, you’ve got to assume that this thing means business. And you’d be right – it will literally self-destruct if you try to tamper with it.

The Boeing Black is not winning any contests when it comes to specs, with a 4.3-inch 960 x 540 display and a 1.2GHz ARM Cortex A9 processor. But what it lacks there it makes up for in security.

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That’s what we’ve been led to believe, at least. We can’t really know, since Boeing wants its secure phone to be so secure that no one actually knows how secure it is.

Boeing has been working on the Black for three years, the aerospace company told Reuters, and it’s already offering the phone to select government agencies and contractors.

The Black runs a custom version of Android that Boeing told The Wall Street Journal it built from scratch. And it has dual SIMs, though Boeing won’t say who manufactures the phone or what carriers it’s compatible with.

Boeing Black

It can even connect with biometric sensors and satellites, and attachments give it extra battery and even solar charging.

The company hasn’t outright stated that the Boeing Black won’t become widely available, but there’s also no word of a commercial release date or pricing. Perhaps these questions aren’t ready to be answered (which seems likely), or perhaps it’s all part of the plan – shroud the Black in mystery, leaving would-be identity thieves and other nefarious types in the lurch.

Unfortunately, this also means consumers are left with a phone that may be harder to find than an America’s Most Wanted suspect.

The GeeksPhone Blackphone

In the other black corner, the GeeksPhone Blackphone is aimed squarely where Boeing and other ultra-secure phone makers haven’t yet tread: at consumers.

The Blackphone is the result of a partnership between GeeksPhone and Silent Circle, a company that specializes in encrypted communications. It runs another custom version of Android, this one called PrivatOS. It encrypts all your phone calls and texts, and all web browsing is anonymous.

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The Blackphone also gives you total control over how much access to your phone and network every individual app is given. If an app does something suspicious, you can stop it in its tracks.

It also has a smart Wi-Fi manager that turns your Wi-Fi off when you leave trusted locations, and you get extra licenses to get friends and family hooked up with Silent Circle services so you can communicate with one another in private.

In terms of specs the Blackphone sports a 4.7-inch HD display, a 2GHz quad-core processor, 2GB of memory, 16GB of storage, and an 8-megapixel camera on the back. And it will go for $629 (about £377, AU$700) when it drops in June.

Paranoia pays

The smartphone security arms race is clearly just beginning to heat up.

Boeing may one day decide to give the Black (or another phone like it) a wider commercial release, or it may not. It doesn’t really matter in the scheme of things, because the GeeksPhone Blackphone is already there – and others aren’t far behind.

Motorola has a security-focused Android phone called the AME 2000 that’s currently being used by federal agencies. Apple published a 33-page document this month detailing the security features of iOS 7. Following Apple, Samsung recently equipped the Galaxy S5 with a fingerprint scanner. The company also launched KNOX marketplace, a secure, business-oriented app store for BYOD clientele.

Even the upcoming LG G3 is rumored to have a fingerprint sensor – or possibly something so sci-fi as an eyeball scanner.

There will no doubt be many more phones down the road seeking to define security. And in today’s age, when parties ranging from identity thieves to the government itself may try at any time to gain access to our personal and private data, that’s more important than ever.

  • Or perhaps smartphones are the weak link in security?