If you follow the funding strategies for technology companies and the darlings of Silicon Valley, you know the smartphone space is a tough nut to crack. For the last five years or more, one company after another has touted their “soon to be released” smartphone that promises to be the most private and secure on the market.
One by one these companies have struggled to survive, with most failing to make it to full commercial launch. The news headlines say they’ve failed because their technology was doomed, or ill-conceived, or perhaps their devices were poorly made. Many have started with big plans for their own operating system—one that is not iOS or Android—only to end up retooling their phone to work on a variant of the dominant OS. At that point, their privacy and security dreams began to crumble.
One company wants to change the privacy-focused technology landscape
Todd Weaver is the founder of Purism, a Social Purpose company that prioritizes “secure, privacy-respecting devices” above all else. Weaver thinks other smartphone companies had a more fundamental problem than simply their technology roadmap. According to Weaver, their very existence relied on the traditional Silicon Valley Venture Capital marketplace, which was at odds with their business strategy. It just wasn’t feasible to green light “outsider” technology with “insider” money.
For those unfamiliar with the Social Purpose Company framework that Purism operates within, it is a legal distinction somewhere between a standard corporation and a non-profit. The company exists to serve a core mission—for Purism, the security and privacy of its customers—above a profit motive. As Weaver puts it, any decision that would compromise user security or privacy, no matter how lucrative, would never be approved at Purism. It is this commitment to profit being secondary to their mission that would hobble an endeavor like this in the traditional VC ecosystem.
Are their enough privacy advocates to privately fund technologies like this?
To raise capital for Purism’s offerings, Weaver knew from his experience in tech and Silicon Valley that the standard actors would not fund his venture. Purism pursued crowdfunding on the Crowd Supply platform.
If outraising your funding goal is a sign of customer enthusiasm, Purism’s business and funding model has worked so far. The Librem 13 Laptop, a Linux-based privacy computer, reached 182% of its funding goal, and the Librem 15 desktop reached 235% of its funding goal.
Purism is now on the brink of a more exciting announcement for people increasingly concerned or even paranoid about privacy on their smartphones. The Librem 5 smartphone, which is in the final stages of testing, is preparing to ship in Q3 of 2019.
2019 will be the year of privacy
Has private, crowd-fund enthusiasm snowballed since Purism began their efforts? You betcha.
- For their first effort, the Librem 13 laptop, Purism raised $455,170 through crowdfunding.
- For the next product, the Librem 15 desktop, they raised $592,065.
- For the Librem 5 smartphone, according to a 2017 Softpedia article, Purism raised over $2 Million.
Capital availability come together with market readiness and demand for privacy
When asked what will make the Librem 5 smartphone different than the other privacy phones that ended up on the cutting room floor, Weaver says it isn’t just about the phone. There are a variety of market factors coming together to make this a success.
Weaver says his business model combined with an engaged developer/consumer community, have created the ecosystem required to make the Librem 5 smartphone a success.
But there is also something much larger at play, creating the snowball effect that could lead to market success. Privacy and security worry are far greater motivators than simple privacy interest.
And it’s not just the market of smartphone users that is concerned about the state of privacy in our increasingly smartphone-anchored economy. The government is making waves of inconvenient questions and potential disruption to the status quo in big tech.
Recent congressional hearings and potential regulations may be about to put private citizens back in the driver seat of their data footprint.
Just last month, Congress took aim at FAANG—Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google—and their practices in accessing and leveraging consumer information (increasingly gleaned from our appendages, the smartphones.) From a New York Times story on recent hearings:
The Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission recently decided to divide responsibility for potential antitrust investigations. The Justice Department is taking Google and Apple, while the F.T.C. has Facebook and Amazon. Last week, the F.T.C. voted to fine Facebook about $5 billion for mishandling users’ personal information, by far the agency’s largest fine against a tech company.
The House Judiciary Committee has opened a bipartisan inquiry into the power and practices of major technology companies. The subcommittee announced the investigation last month and planned to request documents from the companies and hear testimony from confidential witnesses, who may fear retribution from the tech giants.”
Today, however, the biggest risk to our privacy and our security has become the threat of unintended inferences, due to the power of increasingly widespread machine learning techniques. Once we generate data, anyone who possesses enough of it can be a threat, posing new dangers to both our privacy and our security.
And hearings like these have been ongoing for some time including discussions in late 2018 on data privacy and protections, which you can watch on CSPAN here.
If you typically get your news from the major networks or YouTube, I recommend you add CSPAN to your rotation for a more in-depth view of the reality of our times.
The early adopters of privacy smartphones know something you may not
The smartphone space—increasingly the centerpiece of commerce, data capture, and communication—is shaping up to be a battleground of the future.
While the world continues to “opt-in” and share their every move, thought, comment, viewing whim, personal home climate preference, and family behavioral profile with the 2 or 3 companies running the world, there are people that find this repugnant.
Once called conspiracy theorists or overly paranoid tinfoil hat wearers, they are eventually going to be the last men and women standing with privacy. Contrary to what you are “told,” desiring privacy, does not mean you must be without technology or entirely off the grid.
With a privacy-enabled smartphone or computer—which actually requires companies to bring these to market—you will be able to communicate in a world where you privately leverage technology that empowers you. The distinction is that your devices enable you as the customer stakeholder, rather than you being the product that others farm for insight and ultimately profit.
"We think it's a good thing that people are more interested in using privacy controls and managing their information online," a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. Its traffic had steadily been growing since, but it boomed in 2018 as Facebook's privacy issues blew up, said Gabriel Weinberg, CEO and founder of DuckDuckGo.
The leaders of the companies making a fortune off of you, your smartphone habits and all your integrated devices often have a different technology usage policy for themselves. Why is it that Mark Zuckerberg covers his webcam, Steve Jobs didn’t let his kids use the iPad, and other big tech leaders restrict their kids’ access to technology while selling its novelty to us hand over fist? If the Candler’s put Coca-Cola on the table of every house in America but wouldn’t drink it themselves, you would think it was weird.
I’m Not an International Drug Dealer
I do not own any Purism products, but I do consider myself a member of the unashamed and growing “concerned about privacy” crowd. I am equally interested in the ability of privacy-minded entrepreneurs to innovate and find ways for technology to serve the masses rather than the masters.
You are welcome to borrow my tinfoil hat anytime, especially if you’re an entrepreneur using it to build a private and secure future for us.