‘Leave your mobile at home if you don’t want to be noticed’

There are security devices to keep phone activity private but you can never be sure who’s watching you

A Blackphone security optimized smartphone designed by Silent Circle is arranged for a photograph on day two of the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain

A Blackphone security optimized smartphone designed by Silent Circle is arranged for a photograph on day two of the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain

Thu, Feb 27, 2014, 01:15

How important is privacy to you? Extremely, some phone-makers are willing to bet.

With consumers still wary in the wake of the Prism revelations, a natural topic at Mobile World Congress this year was security and privacy.

Perhaps one venture that was making the most of it was Blackphone, a collaboration between SilentCircle and Geeksphone, that promises to keep prying eyes out of your business.

The launch of the Android-based phone was flagged several weeks ago, and certainly caught attention, despite the busy exhibition halls.

The phone claims to keep your data safe, encrypting things such as text messages, voice calls and video chats, in a bid to make consumers feel more secure about the privacy of their communications. It runs a build of Android known as PrivatOS, and will be sold independently of carriers, while also allowing users to transfer and store their files securely.

In a post-Snowden files world, the phone has come as something of a revelation to consumers who may not have been fully aware of the risks their smart devices posed to their privacy.

There were others also hoping to tap into that market. Deutsche Telekom is preparing an app for smartphones that encrypts voice and texts. This will be available to all its subscribers, a first from a mobile carrier. The cloud-based application will be officially unveiled at CeBit next month.

Samsung shows off
Elsewhere, there are further steps for phone security. Samsung showed off its latest S5 smartphone and said Knox, its security platform, would be available for the device.

Knox is the Korean manufacturer’s package of security services that cover the hardware and application layer on the phone.

The package also covers hundreds of IT security policies and device management application programming interfaces.

Biometrics continued to feature in mobile phones. While Apple – a company that doesn’t exhibit at Mobile World Congress – has already implemented the fingerprint reader into its iPhone 5S as a more convenient method of unlocking its smartphone, Samsung was not far behind with the launch of S5.

But the company also unveiled a partnership with PayPal that would see payment information included as part of the fingerprint swipe.

With the market for mobile security management products worth an estimated $560 million (€408.4 million) last year and expected to rise to $1 billion by 2015, it’s not surprising that more companies are starting to seriously look at the topic.

Although messaging service WhatsApp has enjoyed popularity with consumers over the past couple of years – it has more than 450 million users signed up – its deal with Facebook has, it appears, raised some concerns among consumers over where the service will go next.

This week, rival app Telegram, which offers encrypted messaging to users, said it had seen a surge in downloads since the deal was announced.

WhatsApp users unhappy with the Facebook acquisition have taken to social networks to express their displeasure at the move, with some threatening to delete their accounts.

Catching up
However, the rebellion may be short-lived.

Telegram still has a way to go to catch up with WhatsApp; it currently has over 10 million users.

The open-source Guardian Project is another service offering free applications for secure communication over smartphones and tablets.

It aims to help human-rights groups and journalists safely communicate in hostile environments, and its Tor version for Android has been downloaded two million times so far, said project founder Nathan Freitas.

With its app, users can gain access to internet services such as Twitter or Facebook, bypassing government efforts to control the internet.

Most recently it saw interest in its software rise in the Ukraine, Turkey, Vietnam and Venezuela.

“Every time when there is a crisis, you see an increase in people talking about our software,” Freitas said.

Still, it is almost impossible to ensure total privacy, security experts say. Every phone with a digital transmitter can be traced and followed. And metadata, information about who calls who, can be as valuable as the content of conversations.

“I know it is a habit hard to unlearn, but it is better to leave your mobile at home, if you want to remain unnoticed,” Freitas said.

(Additional reporting: Reuters)

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