I'm not proud to admit it, but the revelations of NSA spying on millions of Americans' telecommunications didn't faze me much. Sure, the intellectual part of my brain was shocked—shocked!—just like it is about climate change and other diffuse, abstract-seeming catastrophes. But I didn't change my actions. I still use the internet and mobile phone just like I always did. The value of obscuring my personal communications from surveillance just didn't seem tangible.
Well, now it is. For $629, I can pre-order Blackphone, a new unlocked smartphone designed to make private communications easily purchasable. A co-venture between "encrypted communications firm" Silent Circle and Android phone manufacturer Geeksphone, Blackphone (not to be confused with Boeing's self-destructing Black phone) is essentially an unlocked smartphone running a customized version of Android called PrivatOS that makes data-privacy controls easily accessible and understandable to a mainstream consumer. Blackphone doesn't ship with any of the crapware that mobile carriers install on phones, and it provides apps for encrypting your calls, texts, video chats, and file transfers.
"We're getting at all the exposures you have to permit by default in order to use typical phones," Toby Weir-Jones, Blackphone's managing director, tells Co.Design. "Whether private or not, lots of your data ends up being cached in a bunch of third-party cloud infrastructures, and in many cases is also used to track your interests and activities in order to deliver targeted advertising. [Blackphone's security] apps are intended to look and feel just like the normal phone, texting, and address book apps you're already used to using, so whenever possible the user doesn't need to learn any new skills or complex steps in order to reap the benefits of privacy."
In other words, Blackphone is turning secure personal communications—an abstruse, intangible, niche concern—into a mainstream, branded lifestyle product. Granted, that branding is a little confused. The name Blackphone conjures up images of paranoid, hoodie-wearing hackers, and the company's teaser video depicts exactly that. But the "Use Cases" page on Blackphone's website positions "Individuals" before BYOD and enterprise solutions, and shows a full-bleed picture of an attractive, affluent mother cradling an adorable baby in a spotless suburban kitchen while chatting on a Blackphone. "If you ever worry about your kids . . . Blackphone is for you," the site copy asserts.
Weir-Jones (who is also Silent Circle's chief product officer) confirms that Blackphone's hardware play is intended to "expand our target market. Right now in order to intersect with Silent Circle, you have to be predisposed to look for a tool like that. Our hope [with Blackphone] is that we'll be able to attract folks who know they need to do something but aren't really sure where to start."
Whether this gambit is successful remains to be seen, but it's basically the same design approach that Apple used to turn smartphones themselves—formerly a niche product appealing mostly to lawyers, executives, and productivity wonks—into a mainstream object of desire and social status symbol. PrivatOS's interface no doubt makes it much easier to hide your mundane personal business from prying eyes. But Blackphone is also selling (well, attempting to sell) an image, not just an appealing user experience. Just as using a Nexus 5 or an iPhone 5S sends social signals about what "kind" of person you want to appear to be, being seen with a Blackphone could signal to others that you "care more" about security and privacy—perhaps because you're very successful and important (hello, newly minted startup CEOs), engage in roguishly exciting pursuits ("Yeah, I'm a war correspondent, so I can't just use an iPhone."), or want to make sure everyone knows what a conscientious 21st-century über-parent you are (Park Slope Parents, take note).
It'll certainly be intriguing to watch how Blackphone's experiment in transforming something as wonky as secure communications into a status-signifying lifestyle product plays out. But hey, it worked for global warming and the Toyota Prius, didn't it?