The “Secure” Archos GranitePhone: A Strange Dark Android Entry

Something I’ve been happy to promote on my podcast–Sovryn Tech–and have been even more pleased to see come into fruition, is the “crypto-economy”. Now, I don’t necessarily mean cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, but I more mean how software and devices with security, anonymity, and privacy (or DAPS) that are baked-in from the beginning are being developed en masse. And certainly there are plenty of products to look at. Silent Circle’s Blackphone and Blackphone 2. The Turing Phone. The Quasar IV. Even more mainstream companies like FreedomPop have gotten in on the game when it comes to devices, in particular.

And now there is a new entry from an unlikely company: The Archos GranitePhone. Have a look at what information we have on it below:

granitephoneHonestly, just to get this point out of the way, as far as hardware specifications, this is definitely a mid-range to budget-range device. This is not a screamer at all. But then, with a phone designed for security and privacy, speed isn’t that important. So I wouldn’t really hold that against it…if it didn’t cost $850 USD. Whoa. That’s pricey for any phone. Certainly, you could make the claim that security and privacy are priceless–and that’s true–but then what you see above is pretty much all of the information we have on this device. I have no idea how it’s actually secure and private. So how do I know it’s worth $850?

I don’t.

While I definitely applaud the philosophy (security and privacy) behind the phone, I still need some information to actually believe they genuinely stand behind that philosophy. One of the features I really enjoy about this phone (because the specs certainly don’t excite me) is that it proves an important point that I consistently highlight with the Dark Android Project: getting Android away from Alphabet/Google. Technically, Archos’ GranitePhone runs Android, but it is not Alphabet/Google’s version of Android. It’s a version called “Granite OS”. Much like Amazon technically runs Android on its devices, when what it actually runs is a spin-off of Alphabet/Google’s Android called “FireOS”. Many of the devices I mentioned earlier in this article do the same thing, they all run their own version of Android with various features and quirks (that usually go beyond just putting a different UI on it like Samsung or ASUS does). I can’t stress enough how important this is. People need to understand that you can use what is technically and Android device without having anything to do with Google in any way, shape, or form. So kudos to Archos for that…even though we don’t really know what the feature list is for Granite OS on the GranitePhone.

Keep in mind a huge issue for many with buying a phone that has a non-Google version of Android on it: the GranitePhone may not have the Google Play Store on it, and thus you may not have access to most of the apps that people know and love. Personally, I don’t see that as a problem (I recommend using F-Droid, anyway), but many would. And other “secure phones” that have wisely not included the Google Play Store for security reasons have had sales trouble by not having it available (like the original Blackphone). So do keep that in mind if you’re intrigued by the GranitePhone enough to pre-order it.

As far as Archos the company, they are based out of France (hooray for not being a US company), and have made lower-range devices for a long time. They’re still in business after many years, so they must be reaching out to some kind of audience, and frankly I’m glad. My very first Android device was an Archos “mini-tablet” that I bought in 2011. While it was pretty weak performance-wise, and it even had a cheap resistive touchscreen (most touchscreens are capacitive), it did allow me to test out the Android ecosystem in the sub-$100 range at the time with a device that ran AOSP–and that device in many ways led to the Dark Android Project coming into existence. So I don’t have any real issues with Archos as a company (as compared to some others in the Android space, like Alphabet/Google themselves), and thus I can’t see any serious reason not to trust them with creating a “secure and private” device.

But there is the “ten million dollar problem” hanging in the air with the GranitePhone–and really any smartphone on the planet: the SIM card. SIM cards are now–and I know I sound like a broken record–a well-known major security hole in any device. In my opinion, you absolutely cannot even 90% (forget 100%) trust a device with security and privacy that has a SIM card. Companies like Silent Circle have hinted at the idea that they could be making their own SIM cards (and that would solve this whole problem), but I see no signs that Archos is doing that. Could the GranitePhone be secure by taking the SIM card out? Yeah, maybe. You’re welcome to use it that way (you’re also welcome to use it with a SIM card, obviously). I just mention this point to keep it in mind. I don’t expect SIM cards to go away nor be solved any time soon, they seem to be a “necessary evil” these days.

All of that said, regardless of the reality of how secure or private the GranitePhone may be, I love seeing this kind of products being pushed in the market. I love just seeing that the market signals for secure devices for consumers and private businesses are out there, and a smaller company like Archos entering the fray is just all the more proof.

Encryption is so important, perhaps more than ever before. And before someone emails me and asks, “What if terrorists use this sort of device? Couldn’t these devices do more harm than good?“…look, encryption is not a matter of “life and death” or “safety and danger”. Encryption is a free speech issue, nothing more. Freedom of speech means that individuals have the freedom to speak, even in mathematically garbled tones and text (which is all encryption is). It’s simple: If you are against encryption, you are against free speech. Period.

So I like the heart of the GranitePhone, but with the $850 pricepoint, and a real lack of information on how it does all of the things its claims to do, I can’t really recommend it. But I’m still glad it has been built.

Carpe lucem!