For years now, some of the more security and privacy conscious amongst us have watched as organisations amassed ever-deeper reservoirs of ever-more-personal personal data — and lost it again, watching it pour out into the sewers of the digital underground through ever-wider data breaches that took advantage of ever more ham-fisted security practices.
One year, we thought, we'll see one privacy outrage too many, and the backlash will begin.
2014 is that year.
We didn't expect the outrage to be connected to the NSA, though, the world's biggest and supposedly smartest signals intelligence agency, in a data breach conducted by one man, Edward Snowden — or so it appears at this stage.
I didn't expect a key sign of the backlash to be a remarkable new smartphone called Blackphone.
"Blackphone is the world's first smartphone to put privacy and control ahead of everything else. Ahead of carriers. Ahead of advertising," says their modest but very slick website.
There's almost no technical detail about the phone itself, save that it has "best-of-breed hardware" and runs PrivatOS, "an Android-based operating system without the usual compromises". That means without all the hooks that enmesh it into Google's data mining operations — to which, we now know, the NSA has access — and without the tedious bloatware that telcos insist on filling smartphones with, all intended to channel your activity to their preferred services, not yours.
But what we do know about is the team. Blackphone is a Swiss-based partnership between secure communications provider Silent Circle and Spanish smartphone start-up GeeksPhone.
Founded less than 18 months ago, Silent Circle has nevertheless gained plenty of infosec cred. It founders include former US Navy SEAL Mike Janke, now part-owner of SOC, "a large diversified defence contracting firm, and cryptographic legend Phil Zimmerman and his former chief scientist and chief technical officer Jon Callas.
Silent Circle's encrypted communications software is designed to leave as few digital footprints as possible, and uses servers in Canada. "We did a survey of what countries had the best privacy laws, and Canada and Switzerland came out at the top of the list. We went for Canada because we can drive there," Callas told the Patch Monday podcast in December 2012.
GeeksPhone has been around longer, launching the first European-brand mass-market Android smartphone in 2009, but since then they've been accused more than once of vapourware — announcing products too early and without a proper production plan in place.
With surveillance, security and privacy issues still making front-page news, Blackphone will undoubtedly get plenty of attention. Whether that translates into market success and a profitable business will depend on the phone's price and performance — neither of which have been announced yet — whether there's really enough people willing to pay for their privacy, and whether they can deliver.
Blackphone says it will start taking orders at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona starting on 24 February — a date with deep irony. On the very same day, the RSA Conference kicks off in San Francisco — the massive information security conference run by RSA, the company that's alleged to have accepted NSA money to use weaker encryption in certain products.
It's a charge RSA hasn't directly denied.