Why the makers of Blackphone are launching a 'privacy first' app store

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Silent Circle designed the Blackphone with a "privacy-first" approach.

It takes a certain kind of guts, given the market dominance of Apple and Google, to not only create a new mobile device and platform but an entirely new app store, but the makers of the Blackphone think they have found an important, overlooked niche: consumers who put a premium on the privacy of their personal data. 

Based in Switzerland, an organization now known as Silent Circle first released the Blackphone about a year ago, promising a "privacy-first" approach to the design of its hardware as well as PrivatOS, a version of Android intended to address common security concerns. The Blackphone already came with a "Silent Suite" of applications to ensure privacy protection for texting, calling and managing contact information.

In just a few weeks, however, the organization is also planning to launch an app store whereby developers from around the world will be invited to submit their work for a review process that will ensure consumers will not need to worry about personal information being misused or compromised. 

"We have multiple tiers of vetting that range from verifications of privacy policies. Developers should contact us for the rules," Jon Callas, co-founder and CTO of Silent Circle, told FierceDeveloper. "We're hoping to promote convenient distribution of private browsing, VPNs (and) secure e-mail clients."

Much like Ello, the privacy-focused social networking alternative to Facebook that gained considerable traction last year, Blackphone and Silent Circle seem to be a reaction to the many incidents of data breaches or eavesdropping via mobile devices that occurred throughout 2014. Callas said app developers that saw some of these incidents unfold should let the fallout influence the way they collect and manage user information.

"We hope that it's making it better--they are collecting less," he said. "People are realizing that even if you are an app that is monetizing its users, the information you are keeping is a liability when it gets lost."

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Part of what may complicate the challenge around ensuring the privacy of mobile data is the wide range of talent producing apps in the first place. The Denim Group, based in San Antonio, Texas, is focused entirely on making secure apps for a wide range of clients, but its CTO and president, Dan Cornell, says that requires a significant degree of expertise.

"If you have some college kid writing an app, it's unlikely he is hiring a chief privacy officer or chief regulatory officer thinking about these issues," he said. "For a lot of app developers, they are probably trying to spread to a million customers who are paying a little or no money and will have to make money some other way... they have some disincentives from a privacy standpoint."

Callas suggested that Silent Circle's app store and devices may help fill in the gap between what consumers expect from a privacy perspective and what developers need to deliver. That's why the organization was among those on hand at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last week. 

"The reason we have the best privacy experience is because we know that you brought a smartphone, because you wanted it to be a smart phone--you wanted to play games, do your e-mail, Twitter," he said. "You didn't want to crawl into a hole and put your tin foil hat on!"

Of course, vendors are not the only ones pressing for better privacy protection within mobile apps. The California Attorney General's office released guidelines on mobile app transparency last year, and more recently the Federal Trade Commission issued its thoughts on how app developers should approach the collection and management of location data. Callas, though, said he expects the biggest progress in terms of regulation to come overseas. 

"I expect that the EU will lead," he said. "They've always led in privacy… the Germans, as always, will be first. Followed [by] the UK and others."

Cornell, on the other hand, thinks the speed at which developers get up to speed on those kinds of guidelines or rules depends in part on how large they are. 

"I would expect my giant financial institution to have a new type of organization devoted to (industry regulations) and that it will factor into their thinking," he said. "For smaller guys, you've got to get to a certain size or be publicly traded before that starts to factor into your thinking."

In the meantime, even before Silent Circle's app store launches, Callas suggests developers look online for a wealth of information out there on private design and to talk about it with their peers and customers. "Discuss 'What information do you need?' There is a tendency to collect info for the sake of it," he said. "That shouldn't happen."