Over the summer, after a security researcher revealed that a series of bugs left around 950 million Android users vulnerable to hackers, I decided to ditch Android and go to the shiny, nicely designed, dark side—Apple.
I was sick of Android's broken system, where updates and security patches depend on manufacturers and carriers. It's a system where even if Google pushes a critical patch, you might not get it right away because the Samsungs and Sonys of the world are slow at pushing out the updates.
Being an Android fanboy, my decision to come to the dark side wasn't an easy one, and for the last week I have had an opportunity to give Android one last chance, trying out Silent Circle's new Blackphone 2.
The Blackphone 2 is an Android phone manufactured by Silent Circle, a company that started selling apps for privacy and security-minded people. Silent Circle decided to make a phone a couple of years ago, with the idea of creating a device running a heavily modified version of Android that was "private by design"—a tagline that's actually on the back of the phone.
In other words, they wanted to make an Android phone for paranoids.
They wanted to make an Android phone for paranoids.
The first Blackphone was so out there, it didn't even have Google apps. And you had to install Gmail or Google Maps through Amazon's app market, since there was no way of installing Google's Play Market. I tried it last year and I couldn't fathom making it my personal phone precisely because of that.
The new Blackphone doesn't go that far. All Google Apps are available out of the box. But the phone has several nice paranoid features, which can be controlled through a convenient "Security Center" app).
The most important one for me is the fact that Silent Circle has made a real commitment to security, by pushing critical updates at the same time as Google. (They were among the first devices to patch Stagefright, even before the bugs were published.)
Another nice feature is that you can customize what data every app has access to. Unlike regular Android, on the Blackphone you can prevent your Evernote app from having access to your contacts or use the camera, for example. This is something that alternative Android distributions like CyanogenMod have been offering for a while, but traditional Android phones have not. (Google will implement this feature in the upcoming new Android M.)
If you want to isolate your most sensitive apps from other apps that you don't trust, you can also do that thanks to something called "Spaces." These are basically virtual separate phones inside your Blackphone. You can install different apps on them, and set different PINs. According to a Silent Circle representative, they are separate "down to the kernel level," so no data gets shared between spaces, they're effectively two different partitions. If you get hacked on one of them, in other words, intruders shouldn't have access to the other spaces.
The Blackphone 2 also has a "Smarter WiFi Manager" which turns off your WiFi unless your are near a known hotspot. This prevents your phone from connecting to insecure WiFi hotspots that have common names such as "Starbucks" or "NETGEAR" without you noticing.
Oh, Blackphone 2 is also encrypted by default, just like the iPhone. All Android phones were supposed to have disk encryption on by default in Lollipop, but it turned out that Google left the choice up to manufacturers, which mostly declined to turn the feature on.
Perhaps the most paranoid, and nifty, feature of all is the PIN randomizer, which displays a random pad every time you want to unlock your phone. A little confusing at times, but great to prevent nearby snoopers from figuring out your PIN.
Overall, the Blackphone 2 is a solid phone, considerably better than the first Blackphone, which had serious limitations because of the lack of Gmail apps, and felt like a lower quality phone. This one feels more like a high-end phone, which partially justifies its hefty $799 price tag, although as Wired noted, the performance isn't top-notch.
In any case, if you don't need separate spaces, you can get similar security features on the new Google Nexus 5X, which has granular app privacy permissions, and gets quick security updates. For encrypted communications, you could use Silent Circle's own apps—they're not exclusive to the Blackphone—for just $10 a month. Alternatively, you can use open source free alternatives, such as Open Whisper Systems' Redphone and TextSecure.
You can get similar security features on the new Google Nexus 5X.
Moreover, if you're really paranoid, this is still a phone, which means is subject to cellphone tracking through cell towers, or more complex compromises through its baseband, or even its SIM card. That's why true paranoids prefer to use an iPod for more secure communications.
So it's definitely not "NSA-proof" as some blogs and mainstream news sites inaccurately describe it, but it's a solid phone that has all the privacy features one can get on an Android phone. It will be great for enterprises looking for a better Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) solution, but I personally doubt it'll be a slam dunk among regular consumers.