Silent Circle reveals secure Blackphone 2 phone, Blackphone+ tablet

The privacy protection company will upgrade its snoop-resistant handset later this year and introduce a tablet, too. Also new: a push for business customers spooked by Sony hacks.

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Blackphone security-conscious smartphone gets a sequel
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BARCELONA -- A year after debuting its first Blackphone, startup Silent Circle announced a second-generation secure-phone successor along with a tablet and broader ambition to protect customers' privacy.

The Blackphone 2 will bring the usual upgrades -- a faster processor, more memory, better battery life and a bigger display -- along with business-focused improvements like better integration with Citrix's Mobile Device Management, Silent Circle said here at the Mobile World Congress show.

The phone has a 64-bit eight-core processor, a 1,920x1,080-pixel 5.5-inch screen protected by Gorilla Glass 3, 3GB of memory, a non-removable quick-charging 3,060mAh battery, expandable storage through a microSD port, said Silent Circle's new chief executive, Bill Conner, in a press conference here.

"Sexy and safe," Connor said of the phone, which he said should cost about the same as the $649 first-generation product.

The company offered few details about the Blackphone+ tablet beyond saying it'll have a 7-inch screen and use a Qualcomm processor. It'll be "the world's first privacy focused tablet" and is designed for the heavier-duty computing tasks that people might use a laptop for today.

Don't hold your breath, though, because the Blackphone 2 will go on sale in July of 2015 and the Blackphone+ in the fall, Conner said. Silent Circle relied on Geeksphone to manufacture the first-generation Blackphone, but last week it bought out that partner's stake. The move, helped by $50 million in new funding, will mean Silent Circle can control both its software and hardware.

Security is becoming an increasingly worrisome issue in today's networked world. Sometimes the problem is hackers like those who penetrated Sony Pictures' network last year and published sensitive information; sometimes it's government-sponsored attacks like the US and UK spy agencies' alleged attempts to steal mobile phone encryption key technology from SIM card maker Gemalto.

"Never before have private citizens been under barrage from world governments -- hacking, vacuuming, and chipping away at our privacy," said co-founder and Chairman Mike Janke, and the company now has $750 million in orders for its first-generation Blackphone.

Silent Circle is focused this year on products businesses will buy, not just individuals. That's probably smart, given that legal risks and financial pressures could help open the purse strings. It's been hard to make many security- and privacy-related products a mass-market phenomenon, and three quarters of Silent Circle's sales revenue already comes from businesses even though its initial products weren't aimed there. "We are replacing BlackBerry in the enterprise," Janke said.

The lines between business and personal data are very blurry today, said Phil Zimmermann, Silent Circle's co-founder and an engineer famous for creating the PGP email encryption software decades ago.

"Enterprise privacy is similar to individual privacy. The same technologies can protect both," Zimmerman said in a statement. "The recent Sony experience shows that enterprises too have a responsibility to up their game to protect the privacy of their own people and their partners."

Silent Circle CEO Bill Conner unveils the Blackphone 2, a security-first phone that it'll begin selling in July.
Silent Circle CEO Bill Conner unveils the Blackphone 2, a security-first phone that it'll begin selling in July. Stephen Shankland/CNET

The Blackphone products include Silent Circle's software for encrypted voice and video chats, text messaging and contacts management. There's also a new software product, Silent Meeting, for encrypted conference calls including multiple people. These products run on others' Android and iOS devices, too, not just Silent Circle's hardware.

One big missing piece is email, which Silent Circle has shied away from in the past, believing the 40-year-old technology is simply unfixable. But Zimmerman has some peer-to-peer communication technology in the lab that should help address the matter.

"We have the technology for the world's first peer-to-peer email system," Janke said. "We'll get to that," but for now, it's got two new devices to launch along with new software and services.

Also new is PrivatOS 1.1, Silent Circle's security-minded variant of Google's Android operating system, that will arrive next week for the Blackphone 1. The big change: a virtualization feature called Spaces that isolates work and personal activities on the phone into separate virtual-machine compartments. That makes it easier, for example, for corporate administrators to wipe a work partition, or for a person to set up a games domain for children.

"You get in effect multiple phones on one phone," said John Callas, Silent Circle's co-founder and chief technology officer.

As part of its business push, the company also announced its Silent Store app store for distributing software that Silent Circle has vetted, and Silent Manager, a Web-based tool that lets businesses manage what devices and software employees get on their devices.

Blackphone is based in Geneva, Switzerland, and has more employees in Europe, Latin America and the rest of the world than it does in the US. "We are a very strange and eclectic company," Janke said. "We're always the black sheep," focusing now on security when the rest of the mobile industry is fixated on relative frivolities like "selfie sticks, bent screens, waterproofing and candy colors."

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