blackphone privacy

Blackphone – prompting consumers to question their trust in technology brands

In June this year, a new smartphone called Blackphone, will go on sale to the public. The emergence of a ‘privacy first’ smartphone could cause consumers to question how established mobile providers protect their personal data. Products and services developed with privacy at its core are likely to foster a deeper sense of trust with internet users. That’s what Phil Zimmermann, one of the founders of Blackphone hopes. In MIT’s Technology Review, he differentiates Blackphone from other smartphone companies:

“We are not a phone company adding a privacy feature, we are a privacy company selling a phone.”

Is Blackphone likely to disrupt the current smartphone market? Probably not in terms of sales volumes but they could alter the mindset of the consumer, especially in countries like the Ukraine. In more politically stable countries like the UK, cut through is likely to be much harder. Even in a post-Snowden world, consumers still place greater importance on convenience and status than they do protecting their privacy. This is what Blackphone are looking to challenge. One of the hurdles they face is that consumers don’t make the connection between state and corporate surveillance. The average person is not bothered about state surveillance because most people are not criminals or affected by oppressive political regimes. This means that even if the government is snooping, there is nothing to worry about. This is why the Snowden revelations have not had a mainstream affect on consumer behaviour. But yet, everyone is a consumer and is thus, affected by corporate surveillance. So what is it about corporate surveillance that will be the tipping for consumers?

One of the main drivers will be education. Consumers do not understand the sophistication of data collection methods and as a result, cannot weigh-up the risks. David Talbot (the Technology Review journalist) describes how personal data is passively collected and aggregated between smartphones and other internet touchpoints:

“It was the eve of Blackphone’s launch at the largest mobile trade show, Mobile World Congress. Early versions of the phone were in their pockets. As I joined the group and learned more about the phone, I became aware of my digital nakedness. I glanced at my new iPhone 5S. Opening my Wi-Fi settings, I saw available networks called Barcelona Wi-Fi, Cbarc 1, Spyder, and several others. All were of unknown trustworthiness, but I didn’t think it mattered; after all, I wasn’t connecting with any of them. But it turns out that my phone’s automatic process of seeking such signals meant it was notifying those routers of my phone’s ID number. This is already being exploited by retailers, who use Wi-Fi probes to track customers’ habits. And because information from apps is merged with data from Web browsers, shopping sites, and other sources, dozens of companies can use that ID number to keep tabs on me.”

If more consumers begin to understand the depth of information collected, there could be a more significant change in behaviour. Blackphone’s messaging to the consumer market will undoubtedly aim to educate. If an increase in security awareness becomes mainstream, then so will the market opportunity for products like Blackphone. Even if sales of the Blackphone are weak, it signals to the market that there is an alternative solution to protecting privacy. Therefore the true threat of Blackphone is not necessarily on sales but in its message to the consumer market. Mobile providers should take a pro-active approach to privacy or risk losing consumer trust. It is always better to lead the market than be led by it. And when brand trust is at risk, the issue becomes serious as it takes years to accumulate but days to lose.

Image: Gilles Lambert

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