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Boeing Enters the Super-Secure Smartphone Market With a Focus on Hardware

Reed Saxon/AP

Veteran defense contractor Boeing Co. plans to enter the budding market for cryptophones aimed at foiling spies and hackers by offering the kind of enhanced protection for which the aircraft manufacturer has long been known: tough hardware.

The outer shell of the forthcoming “Black” smartphone, which looks like a consumer Android phone, monitors for tampering while the device’s operating system and apps screen for viruses picked up from the Internet, individuals familiar with the technology told Nextgov. Multiple access controls aim to prevent strangers who may take the device from discovering its clandestine functions, according to the sources, who were not authorized to speak on behalf of Boeing.   

The Black is designed to look and function like a generic smartphone, but double as a classified information system capable of scanning itself inside and out to detect contamination, the sources said.

As intellectual property theft has soared and revelations have emerged about domestic espionage, the number of mobile device companies advertising unbreakable security has grown. Silent Circle, GSMK, QSAlpha and BlackBerry are just a few of the players. Another military stalwart, General Dynamics, has long sold Pentagon officials the PDA-like Secure Mobile Environment Portable Electronic Device, or SMEPED. It is certified for Top Secret communications and uses NSA-approved hardware and software technologies.  

According to various patents Boeing filed between October 2011 and November 2013, the phone might come with a hardware cryptoprocessor and “hot swap capability,” a feature that allows users to replace system components while the phone runs as normal.

The documents also indicate the phone could accommodate multiple SIM cards, which allow a user to access more than one cell network.

The Black is expected to be beyond the reach of most consumers but could cost less than the roughly $3,000 General Dynamics device branded the Sectéra Edge, according to sources.

National Defense Magazine reported last year that Boeing was developing an unnamed smartphone based on Google’s Android operating system.

The Black is expected to be ready by fall, according to the Wall Street Journal.

“The device will be marketed and sold in a manner such that low level technical and  operational information about the product will not be provided to the general public,” the company noted in a Feb. 24 Federal Communications Commission filing. “Detailed technical information distributed at trade shows will be limited or protected by non-disclosure agreements," Boeing said. 

The Black, not to be confused with the similarly-named and aimed Blackphone from Silent Circle, will mainly cater to government organizations, according to the FCC filing.

“Boeing’s Black phone will be sold primarily to government agencies and companies engaged in contractual activities with those agencies that are related to defense and homeland security,” the filing states.

Silent Circle's Android-based Blackphone, a joint project with Spanish firm Geeksphone, has been garnering a lot of attention in privacy and national security circles. Silent Circle co-founder Mike Janke is a former Navy SEAL who has acknowledged feeling torn about his customers -- federal authorities -- reportedly wanting to slip backdoors into Internet technologies to intercept communications.

To coincide with this week's Mobile World Congress, the smartphone industry's biggest annual confab, the Blackphone makers launched sales of the $629 device. The company claims the smartphone’s operating system and suite of encrypted phone, text message and contact apps distinguish it from the pack. The tools "offer unparalleled security and privacy to information workers, executives, public figures, and anyone else unwilling to cede ownership of their privacy to other authorities," such as advertisers, perpetrators of unauthorized surveillance and human rights abusers, Silent Circle officials said in a statement.

Boeing officials declined to comment on whether any existing government customers have preordered the phone or whether its own employees will carry the device. However, Boeing Black was used internally companywide during product development, officials noted.

“I can just say that Boeing Black smartphone is designed to meet the needs of defense and security customers,” company spokeswoman Becky Yeamans said. “Due to customer sensitivities, we cannot disclose what customers are currently using the device or considering a purchase -- nor are we disclosing whether employees will use the phone.”

A company statement describes the Black as “a modular smartphone” that can “enable secure access and exchange of critical data and communications.” The device features “unique embedded hardware and software security solutions” and is compatible with popular mobile device management systems that remotely configure smartphones agencywide.

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