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Is Government Forcing a Secure Smartphone Revolution?

Five years ago, people didn't understand the need for secure devices; now audiences everywhere nod their heads in approval when the topic is broached.

The world has been questioning whether the public sector is forcing a secure smartphone revolution ever since Edward Snowden, ex-National Security Agency contractor, leaked documents exposing the organization's spying program. The NSA's global spying activity has irked legions of people, including America's allies. Recently the White House has come under fire for eavesdropping on German Chancellor Angela Merkel's personal cell phone conversations.

Global paranoia over America's aggressive surveillance has prompted companies to ramp up the development of cryptophones, which are smartphones designed specifically for secure, hack-proof communications.

Developers hope devices like these will give consumers and world leaders an airtight buffer between their communications and unlawful government intrusion.

  • The companies Geeksphone and Silent Circle have partnered to create the Blackphone, a smartphone built with a modified, privacy-oriented version of the Android operating system that will ship this summer. Developers integrated a powerful set of secure apps and features designed to make using the Blackphone a more secure experience than the traditional smartphone. These include speaking, texting and data-sharing using end-to-end encryption, and the ability to block apps from accessing user data that's stored on the phone. Geeksphone CEO Javier Aguera told TechCrunch that the phone is intended for all users, including public servants. "It can be very expert people, but it can be not so expert people," he said. "It can be normal users from the street, or politicians or whatever."
  • German company GSMK has been developing the CryptoPhone line of products for the past five years, and the company's been offering their latest product, the CryptoPhone 500, since late 2013. The CryptoPhone features end-to-end voice and messaging encryption, as well as two-layer storage encryption. Company literature claims that the built-in protections make the phone 100 percent secure against attacks. 
  • In October 2013, French manufacturer Bull SA launched the Hoox m2, which is encrypted at both the software and hardware layers, including biometric technology. The phone can be programmed to lock up if the fingerprint and camera sensors detect someone other than the user getting ahold of it.  
The website predicts that people will flock to cryptophones out of worry about excessive government spying. People will have to wait and see if this comes true, but the fears are certainly motivating manufacturers to take action.

Bjorn Rupp, GSMK's founder, told the Wall Street Journal in January that modern public opinion has validated concerns he's had for a while. He gives presentations about his cryptophone to audience approval.

"Five years ago, businesses were asking me why I was so paranoid," he said. "Now they're all nodding when you give the presentation."

Hilton Collins is a former staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines.