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Encryption Pioneer Phil Zimmermann: 'People Want Their Privacy for Free'

His company Silent Circle is now aiming the Blackphone primarily at businesses, because they're willing to pay.
October 8, 2015, 3:25pm
Image: Silent Circle

Getting people to pay for anything nowadays can be tricky. That also applies to privacy, according to Phil Zimmermann, creator of popular encryption program PGP and co-founder of Silent Circle, the company behind Blackphone, a phone which provides end-to-end encryption for texts and calls.

"Something I've learned over the years in security, is that individual consumers cannot pay for things. They want everything for free," Zimmermann said in a phone interview. "People want their privacy for free. They want everything for free."


That's one reason why Silent Circle is now aiming Blackphone primarily at businesses that need to keep their communications secure.

Since the Edward Snowden revelations of 2013, plenty of free encrypted messaging apps and services have popped up, some being downloaded hundreds of thousands of times. Products like Blackphone try to push privacy even further by offering complete devices that claim greater security—but it seems they haven't taken off in the same way.

"They'll say 'Give me liberty, or give me death! But I don't want to pay $50,'" Zimmermann said of consumers' unwillingness to pay for privacy. The second model of the Blackphone is currently being sold for $799.

The Blackphone 2. Image: Silent Circle

Meanwhile, he said that enterprises and businesses understand that serious security needs to be paid for, and are willing to invest money in protecting their communications, data and intellectual property.

"If we want to make a living, we're better off selling to paying customers in the enterprise world, rather than consumers that don't want to pay for stuff," he said.

Zimmermann explained that Silent Circle is making the phone more suitable for large organisations by allowing IT departments to manage all users at once and create directories where employees can check each others' contact details in order to make encrypted calls. He said the phone is being sold to sectors including banks, oil companies, and the entertainment industry.


"Companies are operating in an environment where they're under attack from hackers," he said, referencing both the Sony and Ashley Madison hacks, which ended in huge dumps of internal data making their ways online.

"They'll say 'Give me liberty, or give me death! But I don't want to pay $50.'"

Although unencrypted phone calls weren't the problem in either of those cases, Zimmermann listed other examples where businesses might want to consider strapping their teams up with secure comms.

"In Brazil, there's a lot of corruption. You could pay a phone company technician to provide you with a whole month of audio recordings of your business competitors' phone calls, for a couple of thousand bucks. It's surprisingly affordable," Zimmermann said.

"A lot of the economic activity that we do in globalization is in countries that maybe have bad human rights records, and corrupt law enforcement. So sometimes it's hard to distinguish between law enforcement and the criminals. If you go to Russia, for example, there's not that much difference in some places."

The company do still sell the Blackphone to ordinary consumers, but "We are much more focused on enterprise now," Zimmermann added.

This does seem like a more appropriate userbase for the device. When Motherboard reporter Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai reviewed the latest device, he said that the phone was unlikely to be a "slam dunk among regular consumers."

Meanwhile, Zimmerman admitted he still hasn't updated to the latest version of PGP, having explained last month that he didn't have a client on his computer that would allow him to use his own invention.

"I haven't kept up with the current version of PGP for a while," he said.