No, T-Mobile And Mozilla Are Not Launching A New ‘Privacy Phone’ [Updated]

Update: A Mozilla spokesperson has been in touch to say that the WSJ has misunderstood what Mozilla and DT are doing and they are not launching a phone, just working together. “It appears that there has been a misunderstanding and the reference to a new device or phone from DT/Mozilla is incorrect,” the spokesperson says. “To clarify, DT/Mozilla will not be launching a privacy phone or a device at MWC. The journalist at WSJ was in fact briefed on a set of specific privacy features designed for Firefox OS.” These were originally showcased at last year’s MWC and developed as a project called “The Future of Mobile Privacy.”

Official Mozilla statement: “The ‘Future of Mobile Privacy’ project is an ongoing joint effort from Deutsche Telekom and Mozilla that was introduced a year ago, at Mobile World Congress 2014. We are creating dedicated privacy features for Mozilla’s mobile operating system Firefox OS that deliver users more choice and control over their mobile experience, but not a specific device.”

Original article continues below:

In a bid for more traction in the ever-saturated mobile market, Deutsche Telekom, the German parent of T-Mobile, and Mozilla are taking a step forward together. The two have developed a new “privacy phone”, built on Mozilla’s Firefox OS and compliant with privacy directives set by the two companies. The device is due to be formally unveiled next week at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

The news of the “privacy phone” was buried in a longer article published today in the WSJ about data protection issues in Europe: specifically, regulators in Germany are cracking down on big tech companies as they try to enforce stricter policies around privacy, and consumers are also demanding more secure services.

We’re reaching out both to Deutsche Telekom and Mozilla for more information about the phone. The WSJ story describes the partnership as a joint venture — implying co-investment from both. It also notes that the phones will have preloaded features like location blurring — which means that apps and other services on the phone only pinpoint your location within a larger radius. And users will also be able to register for different services — such as “find my phone” apps — without registering details that identify themselves.

“Many apps, like weather apps, don’t need to know my exact location. It is sufficient if the location is accurate to 20 kilometers,” Claus Ulmer, Deutsche Telekom AG’s head of data privacy, told the WSJ. The comments are made in reference to why data protection regulation is important, but also underscore the bigger worry among cloud-services companies for how consumer distrust could have a bigger business impact.

A privacy-first phone is not a new concept: last year Geeksphone used MWC to unveil its Android-based Blackphone, also built with encryption and other features to safeguard user data. Others like BlackBerry have long used strong encryption for enterprise versions of their devices to protect data.

Mozilla has been an advocate for more secure browsing online — specifically through do-not-track plug-ins that allow for a layer of privacy when using services like Facebook. Taking that concept and moving it into its mobile operating system and device strategies would be a new move for the company.

Although T-Mobile has operations in several markets, its home market of Germany is ripe ground for more products built with privacy in mind. In addition to regulators cracking down on companies like Facebook and Google over their own privacy policies, consumers are also demanding more control and protection, particularly in light of revelations of activities from government organizations like the NSA in the US, on top of tracking from commercial interests for advertising purposes.

On the side of Mozilla, this is also an example of how the organization — which originally launched its Firefox phones with a view to targeting emerging markets and low-cost phone buyers — is looking to expand the kinds of consumers it hopes to target with its products. It’s not clear whether those devices have yet to see any critical mass of ownership in the face of dominance globally from Android-based handsets.

For DT, this is one more example of how carriers continue to develop their own customized devices as a way of building relationships with their consumers.

As users get increasingly annoyed by stories of large-scale commercial data tracking and snooping governments, they are starting to turn away from cloud-based services, with companies like Dropbox, Facebook and Google getting a particularly bad rap for their safeguarding of privacy and security. This is setting off alarm bells for any company with interests in developing more cloud services themselves: they need to refocus on consumer trust.

“It is a big risk if people avoid cloud services because they are uncertain about their privacy,” Ulmer told the WSJ.

There is indeed a larger commercial reason behind the privacy phone push: In the past several years, companies like Apple and Google have really run away with the smartphone show, controlling the app stores and key services that consumers use on their handsets, and leaving carriers scrambling for diminishing returns in the role of dumb pipe. Moves like this, to create new phones with unique experiences, could be one way to combat that.

We’ll update this story as we learn more.