Blackphone 2 Review: A Slick But Very Expensive Prophylactic For Your Android Security Woes

Thomas Fox-Brewster - - Human Ingenuity: An Ongoing Conversation About Great Ideas in Technology

[entity display="Google" type="organization" subtype="company" active="true" key="google" ticker="GOOGL" exchange="NASDAQ" natural_id="fred/company/1821"]Google[/entity]’s Android OS has had its fair share of security issues this summer. In August, bugs in the Stagefright media tool in Android left as many as 950 million devices exposed to attacks that could be launched with one text. This month, Chinese hackers managed to infect scores of users on the Google Play store . There is justifiable anxiety amongst the operating system's vast userbase.At the same time, most Android phones aren’t encrypted by default, despite Google promises - something that would make phones far more secure without customers having to do a thing. Even where users turn encryption on, especially on a budget Android phone, the operating system often responds as if it’s had its drink spiked.Though certainly not a panacea for Android’s myriad security problems, the Blackphone 2, that Silent Circle is dropping today, mixes security, privacy and usability to a level that I’ve never seen before. Its creators have succeeded in their mission: to build a phone that provides real protection and is actually enjoyable to use. It’s slick and smart, whilst not overwhelming with its many security mechanisms. But there is a serious price to pay for all that... Security features that should be pervasive What the Blackphone 2 does remarkably well is demonstrate what every phone claiming to take user security seriously should do. Simple, effective features in the Blackphone 2’s Silent OS, a modified version of Android 5.1, put others to shame.Perhaps the most important is the ability to control each application’s separate permissions (Google is adding similar functionality to Android Marshmallow). For instance, I can tell [entity display="Facebook" type="organization" subtype="company" active="true" key="facebook" ticker="FB" exchange="NASDAQ" natural_id="fred/company/15317"]Facebook[/entity] to stop accessing my contacts or have the phone ask me when Zuckerberg’s software wants to know more about my social life. It’s no longer an all-or-nothing choice where you either accept apps’ often-excessive permissions or don't use them at all.I’m a big fan of the separation of profiles too. Each "space" is effectively its own mini operating system limiting what applications can access outside of their box, preventing sensitive data like contacts and photos from being pilfered by one app from another. I can set up as many as I like (by default there are three), each with their own specific security settings.[caption id="attachment_3121" align="" width="1940"] The Blackphone 2 comes with a tremendous array of security controls, but is it worth the $799 price tag?[/caption]For a profile where you’re happy for apps to share and access each other’s information, or there’s no sensitive information on offer, you can lower security levels. You might allow all permissions without question, or use a less complex password (though, of course, I’d advise always using strong authentication methods).For spaces with more sensitive apps, like work email, one can lock everything down. That includes the screen, which can be locked with a pattern, a PIN or a password; Blackphone’s creators aren’t yet convinced by the likes of [entity display="Apple" type="organization" subtype="company" active="true" key="apple" ticker="AAPL" exchange="NASDAQ" natural_id="fred/company/280"]Apple[/entity]’s TouchID and other biometric services, even if they've proven remarkably efficient.It’s possible to randomize the PIN pad too. That means that if malware does find a way onto the device and is able to collect keystrokes, it shouldn't be able to accurately learn the PIN pass.[youtubevid id="FnojAyOHFPw"]One of my personal favourite additions, though, is the Smarter Wi-Fi service. Most users have little idea that simply leaving their smartphone's Wi-Fi on can reveal much about them, constantly disclosing what routers they’ve connected to in the past. Any hacker who collects that data - a rather simple task - can use crowdsourced Wi-Fi SSID location services like Wigle to map users’ lives. Blackphone 2, by default, stops broadcasting that information after a given period when the device is not connected to a trusted access point. That timeframe can be changed, from between 30 seconds and two minutes. This is a simple addition that goes a good way to offering more privacy.Then there's Silent Phone, the encrypted calls and texts service that runs over Silent Circle's infrastructure. For comms between users, the encryption goes end-to-end. When one user isn't running Silent Phone, they meet at a protected bridge. I’m not wholly convinced by the need for a Silent Store - a curated selection of apps that focus on security. All apps have weaknesses, all can be exploited, regardless of who created them and however many times they've been probed. And whilst it’s good to encourage users to run privacy or security-focused software, and to avoid nasty stuff on the Play Store, one worries about favouritism.Nevertheless, the granularity and high level of control users are given over device security are unprecedented in the consumer market. Invisible security Some of the most important security-focused activities, however, are happening in the background. Crucially, Blackphone users are more likely to get vulnerability fixes before other Android devices, even those owned by Google.When the Stagefright vulnerabilities of August landed, Silent Circle worked with the researcher who uncovered the flaws, Joshua Drake , to patch them as soon as possible. As users of Samsung, LG, Sony and other Android OEM devices were forced to wait for security, Blackphone 1 users were already covered. The same should happen with future vulnerabilities via over-the-air updates; after all, Silent Circle’s reputation lives or dies on security.The phone comes pre-encrypted with AES-128 keys. That’s not as strong as AES-256, which might concern those looking for future-proof security. But it should be strong enough to protect against brute force attacks carried out by anyone who manages to physically access a target’s Blackphone.Intriguingly, there's no anti-virus by default. Blackphone's creators don't believe AV is suited to dealing with real, modern security threats. It's better, they believe, to stop apps doing evil or to lock down avenues for that malware to get on the device in the first place - i.e. patching vulnerabilities. Users can, however, download anti-virus from Google Play if they deem it necessary. The Blackphone is high-end, no doubt Over a week of using the Blackphone 2, loading it with apps and running it both over a VPN and the Tor anonymizing network, which both add to the data load with extra network encryption, the phone performed perfectly well. There was very little lag using or switching between apps and spaces.The Qualcomm Snapdragon 615 1.7GHz Octa-core CPU and 3GB of RAM, running on O2's 4G network in the UK, kept the phone seriously speedy when compared to your everyday Android phone. The 32GB of storage, meanwhile, is adequate and there’s space for SD cards for anyone who wants to expand. Battery life was fairly typical, a full charge taking roughly three hours and lasting just over 24 hours when consistently used.[caption id="attachment_3122" align="" width="1940"] Silent Circle's Blackphone 2 comes with plenty of power and a great screen.[/caption]The 5.5-inch full HD screen is a real beauty, bettering or equalling most others on the market. It’s great to hold as well. The Blackphone 2 is a cool, solid, glazed black slab weighing 165gm and measuring 7.9mm x 76.4mm x 152.4mm. It feels, undoubtedly, like a premier phone.The cameras will likely disappoint, though, with 13MP on the rear and 5MP on the front, neither offering particularly crisp shots. When it comes to snaps, the latest Blackphone is still behind its high-end competitors. But it's a high-end phone, for sure. It’s all about the price tag All this, however, comes at a startlingly high price: $799. That’s $50 more than the 64GB iPhone 6S and $50 less than the iPhone 6s Plus with the same storage. There was shock at the Apple decision to ramp up the price of its flagship phone by $100. I was similarly aghast at the cost of Silent Circle's new hope.For all its good work, this is where Blackphone will have a hard time competing. The iPhone 6S has all the knobs and whistles that are already delighting reviewers and attracting buyers. Apple's phone also comes with its own security benefits, including device encryption and a locked down App Store (though it was recently proven vulnerable ).And in a world where the most secure phones are those that don't connect to the internet at all, it's yet to be seen whether the most security-obsessed will be lured by Blackphone's charms. Worth it? The Blackphone is a fine device. It’s attractive, it’s fast. There's a wonderful array of easy-to-use security settings, surpassing anything on the market, whilst much of the good work is done by the Silent Circle crew patching vulnerabilities and issuing updates. For dilettantes of the privacy and security spheres, or anyone who wants good protection from digital threats with little fuss, the Blackphone 2 is an ideal choice.But sheesh, that price… it’s unavoidably high. I'd be amazed if the Blackphone 2 has enough to convince the average user - the consumer all but forced into using devices from major manufacturers, either by enticing deals offered by their operators or the unceasing marketing of industry heavyweights - to forego cheaper high-end devices.If Blackphone 2 is a success, it won’t be because of its undeniably high quality. It will be a result of a higher awareness of the manifold digital threats to the privacy of people the world over. That would be a miraculous thing indeed. You can buy the Blackphone 2 from Silent Circle's website from today.