Smartphones have shot up the rankings of malware targets over the years – with a 2018 McAfee Mobile Threat Report estimating that total strains of mobile malware increased from around 7.5m in 2015 to a shade over 20m by Q3 2017. This isn’t surprising given that cyber criminals follow the money (or data) like any others – and our devices are replete with ways of accessing both.
While a few smartphone vendors have tried to major on security as their unique selling point with varying degrees of success, BlackBerry have consistently led the charge in this area for years now. Following our positive impression of the KEYone handset released last year, we were keen to get our hands on the newly released BlackBerry KEY2, which represents a refinement of a successful formula for productive, security-conscious types.
When you pull the KEY2 out of the box it exudes a similar sophistication to its predecessors, but with some immediately noticeable improvements.
BlackBerry KEY2 – New Features Overview
The first thing an existing KEYone owner will notice is the KEY2 is slightly lighter (12 grams to be precise) and a tad (1mm) thinner. At the same time the device also has a generally higher quality feel which is hard to place at first, but seems to represent the compounding of lots of individual build improvements.
The handset is cocooned in a (black or silver) Series 7 aluminium alloy frame which provides enhanced durability and now has slightly angular edges that make it more comfortable to hold. All the key function buttons (power, volume, function key) are positioned along the right-hand side of the device, with a textured edge now applied to the power button to save fumbling around if the phone is in your pocket and you’re frantically trying to turn it off.
The rear of the KEY2 features the signature BlackBerry textured back cover in a grippy diamond pattern, which should help prevent the device going airborne if you get a bit animated with it in your hand. Photographers will be pleased to see that the back of the phone also now sports a dual camera, which can help with zooming and image clarity.
The inner workings of the device have also had a significant update with some noticeably improved technical specs: the KEY2 has a newer Snapdragon 660 processor and 6GB of RAM – double that of its predecessor. The KEYone was far from slow but the speed difference is really noticeable when you have multiple apps running at once.
The Smart Keyboard which impressed us on the KEYone has also had a design overhaul. Firstly, the keys are 20% bigger, which will help typing accuracy and assist anyone re-training their digits after years of onscreen keyboards. The keys also now have a matt finish which we prefer and a nicer – but hard to describe – response when you press them, that almost encourages you to find things to type.
But as we said in our KEYone review a physical keyboard isn’t just included to satisfy a niche customer segment who prefer physical keys – it has a series of features that make it earn its real estate on the front of the handset. Being touch sensitive it allows you to scroll the screen simply running a finger across the keys, which helps prevent emails and web pages being obscured and will help those who compulsively polish finger marks off their displays. Each key can also have an app shortcut assigned to it (‘i’ for Instagram, for example) and the KEY2 Smart Keyboard now features a Speed Key for accessing accounts unified under BlackBerry Hub.
Perhaps the slickest feature of the keyboard is a lighting-fast fingerprint reader hidden in the spacebar for easy authentication, which leads us nicely to the other KEY2 security features that BlackBerry have sprinkled up and down the Android stack:
Lets have a run through each of these features in turn.
Hardware and the Root of Trust
BlackBerry devices begin their security efforts at the hardware level by embedding encryption keys in their device components to provide what is termed a ‘root of trust’. These encryption keys are then used as part of a technique called hashing, where a cryptographic algorithm is used to convert data into a numerical value, which can then be used as a checksum to verify a key’s integrity.
What does this mean in plain english? Essentially, when you switch a BlackBerry on each layer of hardware essentially has to prove its identity by using the encryption key embedded in it. This secure bootchain helps ensure that no tampering has occurred and no malicious software is running behind the scenes.
BlackBerry Integrity Detection
BlackBerry devices running Android continuously monitor for system changes and other events that could compromise their security. A prime example of this is ensuring that an installed app isn’t somehow trying to ‘root’ and gain enhanced privileges on your device – pretty much the first order of business for any attacker up to no good on a system. Integrity detection for the KEY2 is factored into the overall security status presented by the BlackBerry DTEK app.
DTEK by BlackBerry
Notwithstanding security enthusiasts, most people with hectic 21st century lifestyles need effective security to fall into the background of their lives and be as effortless as possible. This problem has clearly not been lost on BlackBerry, who have installed the DTEK app on their Android powered devices, which aims to gently make checking a device security status as casual as checking the weather.
DTEK presents a simple visual dashboard summary of various items of security fundamentals, including screen lock status, factory reset protection against theft, and the ability for remote handset management.
Perhaps most importantly it allows a user to easily get a detailed view of what installed third-party apps are getting up to behind the scenes; for example, accessing their contacts, microphone, camera, or contacts. Each of these various aspects of smartphone security get neatly pulled together to provide an overall security rating, complete with suggestions for how the rating can be improved.
The BlackBerry KEY2 comes equipped with full disk encryption that requires the device password, but the device’s security-enhanced version of Android also comes with the Locker app. Locker acts a bit like a safe in an office, providing a secure storage area where you can put files, photos and apps you don’t want others to meddle with. This may be particularly useful for people who, for whatever reason, frequently have to let others handle their device but don’t necessarily want all their personal or work items on display. The Locker application is opened by password or fingerprint scan and includes the Firefox Focus browser which helps block website trackers.
BlackBerry Privacy Shade
Finally, the KEY2 also comes with a relatively new app called Privacy Shade. Most of us probably have probably had the experience of sitting next to an overly curious ‘shoulder surfer’ intent on having a look at whatever’s on our screen, be it an article or an email. A quick three-fingered swipe down the screen activates Privacy Shade, which helps you cut down on such intrusions by viewing a document or app through a restricted viewing window. You can customise both the size of the viewing window and the darkness of the surrounding area.
Overall, the KEY2 is a great phone with some significant improvements over its predecessor. If you want a high-quality, security-focused device and like the idea of a physical keyboard, the KEY2 will not disappoint. Alternatively, if you want the features outlined but would prefer to stick with on-screen keyboards the BlackBerry Motion is a worthy alternative.