How Blackphone builds security into its handset

Perhaps you should thank the National Security Agency. In the last year, online privacy and security have been getting an ever-increasing amount of attention. For evidence, look no further than last month's Reset the Net initiative. Or the success of security-focused programming like Katherine Albrecht's online talk show. And now there's the Blackphone, an Android handset that's designed from the ground up with privacy and security in mind.

The hardware isn't especially remarkable. It's powered by a 2-GHz quad-core chipset and has 16 GB of storage. It has a 4.7-inch high-definition display, microSD slot for an additional 128 GB of memory and front- and rear-facing cameras.

But it's not the silicon that deserves attention -- it's the software. Named one of the "top 10 technology breakthroughs of 2014" by MIT Tech Review, the Blackphone is conceptually very different than virtually any other handset on the market. Designed in cooperation with security developer Silent Circle, it runs a version of KitKat (Android 4.4, to be precise) that has been extensively modified to deliver a secure user experience.

The resulting operating system is called PrivatOS and is bundled with apps that deliver secure, encrypted communication across text messaging, voice and even video chat. Bottom line: The handset offers the most secure messaging available to civilians today, though the most secure experience happens when you communicate with other Blackphone users.

And there's more than just secure person-to-person communication. Blackphone includes anonymous Web browsing, a virtual private network (VPN), Wi-Fi protection for public hotspots and even encrypted cloud storage. It has a remote wipe capability in case it's stolen. In addition to all that, PrivatOS's Blackphone Security Center gives users unparalleled control over how much access apps get to your personal data, location information, contacts and more.

Available for pre-ordering since March, those Blackphone orders are now being fulfilled. On July 14, the company will take new orders for the $629 unlocked phone that can be used with any carrier.

That might sound like a lot of money, especially when you consider you can more or less build your own Blackphone piecemeal, as long as you're willing to hunt down all of the necessary apps. After all, the Blackphone's bundled apps are all commercially available third-party tools, including secure communication apps from Silent Circle.

That said, Blackphone represents a singular vision of privacy and security, smartly assembled so all the parts work together for a seamless user experience. Note that the security and privacy it affords require some ongoing subscription fees. But Blackphone's retail price includes several years of coverage for Silent Circle's encrypted communication apps as well as two years of SpikderOak's encrypted cloud storage.

Photo courtesy Blackphone.