The Blackphone, which cost $629, was conceived by security and encryption specialists Silent Circle. It worked with Spanish company Geeksphone to develop the device.
Silent Circle offered a peer-to-peer platform for encrypted voice, video, text and file transfer on mobile devices via a secure, proprietary network, software and mobile apps. It embedded these capabilities into the Blackphone.
In the press release announcing the Blackphone it was described as “the world's first smartphone which places privacy and control directly in the hands of its users”.
The phone came at a time when there were heightened concerns that agencies such as the US National Security Agency (NSA) and the UK’s GCHQ were able to listen into mobile phone calls.
It used a combination of “operating system and application tools which offered unparalleled security and privacy to information workers, executives, public figures, and anyone else unwilling to cede ownership of their privacy to other authorities”.
Silent Circle declared that smartphone users would no longer need to accept “unauthorized surveillance, commercial exploitation of activity data, and the loss of privacy, security and fundamental human rights.”
The Blackphone had a proprietary version of the Android operating system called PrivatOS. It also had a suite of privacy-enabled applications. The Silent Circle suite of apps, included Silent Phone, Silent Text, and Silent Contacts; anonymous search, private browsing, a VPN and secure cloud file storage.
Customers who bought the Blackphone received three separate one-year 'Friends and Family' subscriptions for the Silent Circle suite, allowing them to speak securely with trusted friends and family who had an Apple iPhone or ‘standard’ Android smartphone.
In 2015 Silent Circle took full control of the Blackphone venture buying out Geeksphone’s stake. It went on to offer a follow up version of the phone, the Blackphone 2.
The separation between Silent Circle and Geeksphone proved acrimonious and ended up with a legal battle in which Silent Circle stated that it had expected orders for 250,000 Blackphones from three distributor agreements. Two major deals fell through and sales of 100,000 Blackphones to America Movil ended up with an order of just 6,000 phones.
Silent Circle’s general counsel Matt Neiderman stated in court documents
that “the hardware business had proved to be a significant financial drain for Silent Circle” and went on to note that “because of the large purchase orders that proved to be bogus, Silent Circle borrowed money to purchase inventory and parts ahead so that it would be able to deliver devices to meet the demand it believed it had.”
He also stated that “with poor specifications, underperforming but overpriced hardware and no guidance from Geeksphone into the distribution of the device, the Blackphone 1 proved to be a major financial failure, costing millions of dollars, all funded by Silent Circle.”
Despite these difficulties, Silent Circle went on to launch the Blackphone 2 one year after the original Blackphone launch.
It no longer makes smartphones, instead offering end-to-end encryption with a Silent Phone app.
The Blackphone is included in the UK’s Victoria and Albert Museum mobile telephones collection
and also the International Spy Museum in Washington DC.