Oct 21, 2014

Blackphone's biggest problem

Most of you have already heard about Blackphone, a joint venture between Silent Circle and Geeksphone which markets a mobile phone that puts privacy and security first. Their product, launched in 2014, has been extensively reviewed by tech experts, so I won't repeat what's been written elsewhere (for example, in EnGadget, Ars Technica, C|Net, or the NYT). 

What you're about to read here is quite different. It tells the story of a regular paying customer's experience with Blackphone. And I believe this story says a lot about Blackphone's biggest problem (see below), but I'll let the reader be the judge of that.

I had been following Blackphone's development since the Snowden revelations, and I had a positive bias in favor of the companythe Twitter feed next to this post provides massive evidence of that. Being a researcher who deals with topics that can be sensitive (e.g., the arms industry), getting a phone that protects data somehow made sense to me. Yet, four months after Blackphone promised the phone would ship, I still cannot use the product, and my sensitive data is still not protected. That's unbelievable and here's how it happened.

At first, the phone was supposed to ship in June, then shipping got postponed till July, and the phone finally shipped in August. I was fine with that. Blackphone is a new company, you can't expect perfection from Day 1. A two-month delay sounded reasonable back then. I used that waiting time to confirm the shipping address to their customer service, and they said it was all good.

Except that—oooopsy—they got the shipping address wrong. I don't know how that happenedbut neither do they, and that's more worrisome. The name on the parcel was not mine, and my company's name was missing. That normally wouldn't be a problem because Blackphone sends you a UPS tracking number as soon as the parcel leaves their Hong Kong warehouse, so you would notice the error. Except that—oooopsy—they never sent a tracking number. Eventually, the parcel got shipped back to HK after traveling the world for a couple of weeks. At this stage, I still had no idea that it had left the HK warehouse in the first place. If people wanted to intercept your hardware and implant bugs before it reaches you, they'd be happy to see how easy Blackphone can make it for them.

I got in touch with customer service, kindly asking them if they knew when the phone would ship to [my address], which I copy-pasted again in my email (just in case). They apologized clumsily ('we are having a great response to the launch which is leading to a lot of questions') and told me the phone would ship on the same day. I thought, wow, cool.

Three weeks later, I still had not received a UPS tracking number, so I contacted them again. After waiting for an entire week, I received the following answer: 
'Your shipment was sent back due to the company name is incorrect. Could you please send us your full address?'
Interestingly, it took them a month to realize that they had already sent me the phone once (great inventory management eh?). And they were asking again for my address—which was displayed at least two or three times, without any error, in the same email thread.

At this stage, I began to wonder:
1/ As a company, how come Blackphone seems unable to perform basic tasks, such as communicating internally across departments, or keeping track of customer emails?
2/ When Blackphone folks tell a customer that this or that will happen soon, how come it usually doesn't, and no one seems to care at all in the company?

But this was just the beginning. In early September, I got an email promising that my phone 'will be shipped out tomorrow'. A week later, still no UPS number. I email them, they email back:
'Being that Hong Kong was recently hit with a typhoon, shipping was affected'
Another week later, I finally receive a UPS tracking number...and guess what? The shipping address had still not been updated despite 3 months of email exchanges. In other words, Blackphone was heroically sending the phone for the second time to the wrong address. And I could not update that address online, and neither could Blackphoneor so they said. Duh. Maybe I should have encrypted it for them to feel more comfortable...?

I finally get the phone in October. Just so you know, you'd better be around when it comes because you have to pay the UPS guy an extra $100 in VAT to actually get the parcel. Blackphone does not inform you of the amount in advance, and you cannot pay that amount online. So if there's no one at your home or workplace willing to pay for this when the thing comes in, you're screwed.

To apologize for the delay, Blackphone offered me a Silent Circle upgrade (so I can call 'Out Circle' numbers each month for 100 minutes). Cool, uh?  
Except it does not work.

I religiously followed the instructions to set up my Silent Circle accounts on their three pre-installed apps. When I got to the website to validate my subscription, I was asked to choose a Silent-specific phone number. I found this weird because my app already displayed a Silent phone number. 

And guess what the customer service said?
'My apologies but I don’t see a phone number associated with your account on our database. I have provided a screenshot'
While I was very happy to receive an evidence-based answer, I was puzzled. I knew Blackphone was a technology company above everything else, so I could understand why they sucked badly at running a warehouse in Asia or a shipping department. 
But this?? This is supposed to be the company's core competence.

I replied with a screenshot taken from within the Silent Circle app in my Blackphone—one that shows the Silent phone number associated with my account. They told me there was a 'problem with my account'. Then they asked for permission to change my password.

Yes, you read it right. The company that claims to put privacy, security and encryption everywhere now has my password (even though they still haven't recorded my address).

I gave them permission because after 4 months of waiting—and I don't know how many hours I spent exchanging with their customer service—I just wanted the thing to finally work.

It's been 10 days since I gave my password. No news. No account. No Silent Circle apps—worth $899 in subscription fees according to Blackphone itself—and this is the service you get for that price! Even a monopolistic U.S. phone carrier wouldn't need more than one business day to reset a customer account.

As far as the promise for more privacy and security is concerned, uh-oh. What if I were a journalist in a war zone who desperately needed a reliable way to communicate securely?

Blackphone may have a bunch of world-famous cryptography experts on their payroll, but based on my series of experiences with the company, I can only say that they suck at running a business

And that is ONE BIG PROBLEM. 

And what did I just read? Blackphone is about to launch a tablet? Oh boy, that certainly shouldn't be their priority right now.

Hey, Blackphone, why don't you first streamline your basic operations, hire experienced professionals to run logistics and customer service (damn it, hire them from Apple or Samsung, I don't care), because right now, I hate to say, but you are one of the worst companies I've ever had to deal with as a customer

Hopefully you will not simply dismiss this blog and attribute it to customer anger. I'm not angry, I'm disappointed because you broke your promise. And since what you do is important to society's future, I think you should be more careful. You cannot expect consumers to care about privacy if THIS is the kind of service that privacy-conscious companies like you deliver. So I thought I should take the time to share this with you.

I still believe in your values and I love your product. I simply wish I could actually use it. After all, it's been six months since I ordered it. Hopefully I will soon be able to write a follow-up to this blog about the product itself. It's kind of up to you.

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