Last weekend, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden called on developers to design products that protect users’ privacy and Constitutional rights, saying he plans to promote such technologies. But Vysk Communication’s CEO Victor Cocchia has been working on developing protecting phones from hackers and eavesdroppers since 2012, long before Snowden addressed the Hope X conference.
Although the QS1 phone case looks like an Otterbox defender case or bulky charging case, it does more than just protect your screen. With the flip of a switch, you can secure calls, messages and pictures from the iPhone 5/5s or Samsung Galaxy 5 you already have using the case’s encryption processor.
Unlike other privacy technology on the market, the case also allows you to block your phone’s camera and jam your phone’s microphones. It will be available at Best Buy this fall for $229.99 and can be preordered online now.
The case has two modes — Private Call Mode and Lockdown Mode. Private Call Mode allows users to use the Vysk QS app to make private calls to other subscribers over Vysk’s network. You have to pay a $10 monthly subscription fee for this service, but Cocchia says these calls will never be recorded and no metadata — such as call history — will ever be stored. The service also allows you to encrypt your messages, voicemails and pictures.
On Lockdown Mode, the phone’s camera and microphones physically are blocked by the case. The case has its own microphone and a headset option.
On Saturday, Snowden told developers that phone encryption was just a “first step.” He has said in the past that the NSA has the ability to access your phone even when it’s shut off. It seems the QS1 could be the start of the technologies Snowden was predicting.
Cocchia says right now, everyone else interested in phone privacy develops phone encryption software.
“It’s not that their encryption is bad or anything like that,” Cocchia said. “It’s just that software can be hacked. … A million pieces of malware are created each month.”
Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal reported on the release of Blackphone, a $629 Android phone that offers encrypted phone calls and messages, as well as FreedomPop, a service that provides an $8/month added security for Android phones. But the Journal noted both of these technologies are “incomplete.”
Cocchia said the utility for such a phone case goes beyond the needs of those concerned about government surveillance. It also could have benefits for professionals trying to protect trade secrets.
He said government agencies, other governments, journalists and businessmen have expressed interest in his technology.
Although this case may take users’ privacy a step farther by allowing them to block their cameras and microphones, is it really worth more than $200 plus a monthly fee? Its price may make it more competitive than Blackphone, and Cocchia emphasized people want to use the phones they already have.
But these features only work when switched on. Although some users may see this as an asset because it allows you to still use your phone to play Angry Birds or access Google Maps when you’re not as concerned about having a secure line, it leaves room for error. People who are serious about privacy generally avoid such snafus by keeping their sensitive work on a separate phone.
Additionally, for calls and messages to be encrypted over the phone’s network, both callers need to be using the Vysk subscription service. That presents a huge limitation, although Cocchia said the service can generate an untraceable number for calls that are to non- subscribers.
As Snowden said on Saturday, spies are interested in collective communications, not just one individual’s. No case or software on the market can do much to protect against that, but the QS1 might be a start.