BlackBerry Joins Boeing With Self-Destructing Spy Phone

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Boeing Black
While the Boeing Black may look like a thicker cousin to other widely used Android devices, it’s packed with features out of a John le Carre novel, including triggers that can cause the handset to self-destruct. Source: Boeing Co. via Bloomberg

Boeing Co. is teaming up with BlackBerry Ltd. on a secretive, self-destructing smartphone developed for use by U.S. defense and homeland security employees and contractors.

The partnership showcases a push by Boeing, the second-largest U.S. defense contractor, into software development as sales slow for its military hardware amid Pentagon budget cuts. BlackBerry gains a new way to hold on to its government base as commercial sales decline.

“We’re pleased to announce that Boeing is collaborating with BlackBerry to provide a secure mobile solution for Android devices utilizing our BES12 platform,” John Chen, chairman and chief executive officer of Waterloo, Ontario-based BlackBerry, said during an earnings call today. “That by the way is all they allow me to say.”

The Chicago-based aerospace company has been testing its secure smartphone, known as the Boeing Black, with BlackBerry’s main business enterprise server product, known as BES, which provides software that allows large corporations and government departments to keep track of their employees’ devices. The server is compatible with Android and iPhone handsets.

The companies are “pursuing a number of opportunities” that would pair the Boeing device with BlackBerry’s server, Andy Lee, a Boeing spokesman, said in a phone interview.

“Boeing has decades of experience providing defense and security customers with secure communications,” Lee said. “We are working with BlackBerry to help them ensure the BES12 operating system is compatible with, and optimized for use by, the ultra-secure mobile devices favored by the defense and security community.”

Software, Security

Since taking over last year, Chen has focused on providing software and security for governments and corporations, while also introducing new phones that cater to business users, like the Passport and the Classic, which was introduced earlier this week.

BlackBerry shares fell 0.8 percent to $9.99 at the close in New York after the company reported third-quarter revenue that fell well short of analysts’ estimates. Boeing shares rose 0.5 percent to $126.23.

Boeing has released few details about the inner-workings of the phone, which it says in a brochure “was designed with security and modularity in mind.”

While the Boeing Black may look like a thicker cousin to other widely used Android devices, it’s packed with features out of a John le Carre novel, including triggers that can cause the handset to self-destruct.

Tamper Proof

The phone is manufactured as a sealed device with epoxy around its casing and screws and a tamper-proof covering over the screw-heads “to identify attempted disassembly,” Bruce Olcott, outside counsel to Boeing, said in a Feb. 24 letter to the Federal Communications Commission requesting that confidential design details be kept under wraps.

“Any attempt to break open the casing of the device would trigger functions that would delete the data and software contained within the device and make the device inoperable,” Olcott wrote.

The Boeing Black is also outfitted with two SIM cards instead of the one that’s standard on other mobile phones, so users can switch between government and commercial networks, according to a product description on the aerospace company’s website. There’s also a “modular expansion port,” which allows users to connect to satellites or expand the phone’s power capacity.

Voice and data are encrypted via Boeing’s PureSecure architecture, a multilayered security system created for mobile devices along the lines of Samsung Electronics Co.’s Knox offering.

California Mindset

Although Boeing has been developing the phone for more than two years, the handset fits with an innovative “Silicon Valley” mindset promoted by Chris Chadwick, the president and chief executive officer of Boeing’s Defense Space & Security unit.

Rather than viewing the $33.2 billion-revenue business in terms of military programs, such as its F/A-18 fighter jets, Chadwick sees opportunities in hardware, software and services. “It’s not IT. It’s how do you leverage the power of information across multiple dimensions,” Chadwick said in an Oct. 30 interview.

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