Be it Parler, Gab, or GETTR, recent times have seen no shortage of dollar-sign-eyed entrepreneurs looking to capitalise on conservative America’s disdain for “liberal” Silicon Valley. It was only a matter of time before someone tried to invent the MAGA phone.
Er, make that…the “Freedom Phone.” The device, which launched Thursday, is the product of Erik Finman, a 22-year-old crypto-millionaire and diehard Trump fan, who says that he wants America’s patriots to take “back control” of their lives from the tech oligarchy. Finman’s phone, which costs $US499 ($672), claims to offer conservatives a way to be free of Big Tech’s “spying” and “censorship” — though it is radically vague on the details. Like a random handgun, the phone should be treated as if it were loaded and dangerous because we simply don’t know what’s under the hood.
Freedom Phone claims that it can protect users from the data collection that comes with an iOS or Android operating system (it has something called a “FreedomOS” — which, ironically, just appears to be a modified version go Google’s Android OS). The phone is also meant to liberate users from Big Tech’s alleged ideological preferences: it has an “uncensorable app store” (called the “PatriApp,” lol), where it is apparently impossible for apps to get booted no matter how unsafe or horrendous they are.
The device also comes pre-loaded with a host of privacy features (Signal, DuckDuckGo, Brave), as well as a suite of apps that seem tailor-made for Trump voters: Parler, One America News Network, Newsmax, and Rumble are all included.
“This is the first major pushback on the Big Tech companies that attacked us – for just thinking different,” Finman tweeted Thursday morning. “We’re finally taking back control.” Other right-wing influencers and commentators could also be seen promoting the product on their channels.
Yet while the product is being sold as an escape from Big Tech’s nefarious oversight, in reality, it appears to be a budget phone from Asia that may end up compromising buyers’ autonomy rather than protecting it.
Before we get into the specifics of why this device probably sucks, let me just say that the desire to have a phone that is dedicated to protecting your autonomy and privacy is a reasonable one — and should be encouraged. That said, I don’t think the Freedom Phone provides that. Actually, aside from its overt partisan bent, it’s impossible to tell what kind of device this is because Finman and his acolytes haven’t provided any information about it.
Let’s start with the website (freedomphone.com). Hilariously, it provides literally zero specs about the actual device. There is no information about the phone’s operating system, storage, camera, CPU, or RAM capabilities. It has a list of features, but there are no actual details about them. Instead, under each feature, there’s merely a “Buy it now” button which redirects you to the site’s shopping cart. The phone’s hefty price, combined with the company’s total lack of transparency, is ridiculous — essentially asking the buyer to cough up half a grand in exchange for, uh, something! We sent an email to Freedom Phone to ask for further information and will update this story if they ever respond.
The fact that the device is essentially a black box also makes it a potential security (and thus also privacy) nightmare — and once again, it should be treated that way until proven otherwise. In fact, based on the assessment of some security professionals who have scoped it out, the Freedom Phone should be avoided at all costs.
Matthew Hickey, the co-founder of Hacker House and longtime cyber professional, said that, while it hasn’t been confirmed, the Freedom Phone would appear to be a cheap Android device sourced from Asia — the likes of which could be vulnerable to all assortment of supply chain risks and other issues.
“Based on photographs from the company website a number of Internet sleuths identified that the device has the same form-factor, shape, and appearance of a Umidigi A9 Pro,” said Hickey, via email. “This device is a drop-shipped customisable Android-based phone that can be ordered from ASIAPAC region and customised to a project’s requirements,” he said, clarifying that such devices can be “bought and shipped in bulk with custom logos and branding so as to give the appearance of a phone that has been designed for a unique purpose but is actually just a common cheap Android-based smartphone with core components produced in Taiwan and the surrounding areas.” It’s also very cheap: the A9 Pro is currently available for about $US120 ($162), much less than the Freedom Phone’s $US500 ($673).
According to The Daily Beast, Finman confirmed that the device he was selling was made by Umidigi but couldn’t say what specific model it was.
On top of everything, “Freedom” would also appear to be using a CPU from Taiwan produced by Mediatek, the likes of which is “popular in low-end Android-based devices” and is known to be buggy, said Hickey.
“Historically Mediatek devices have shipped with a wide number of insecure configurations and are prone to trivial vulnerabilities that allows anyone with physical possession of such a device to read/write the data on the phone through its early bootloader,” Hickey said. “They make phones specifically to permit high customisation and as such many of the vendors own software [that] can be used to manipulate the devices, which is why such hardware is popular in countries like North Korea as often the security enabled by a user can simply be circumvented by a state operative,” he added.
Nothing screams “freedom” like products popular in the DPRK.
The funny thing is, if Trump voters are looking for a way to get off the “Big Tech” grid, there’s no need for them to buy this sketchy shit. There are actually entire subcultures within the phone industry dedicated to escaping the Android/iOS paradigm.
You can wade into the de-Googled phone sector, for instance — where Android phones are sold that have ostensibly been refurbished to rid the devices of code that will “send your personal data” back to the tech giant. There’s also the Linux-based Pinephone, which sells at a fraction of the Freedom Phone’s cost (between $202 and $269), and is a favourite of those in the privacy community. All of these come with caveats, obviously, but the point is that there are much more transparent and affordable options than the Freedom Phone.
Of course, total security and privacy aren’t really what the Freedom Phone is about. For Finman and his company, it’s just a cash-in on the growing conservative demand for products that are brand MAGA. For the customers, meanwhile, buying a phone like this is a statement of identity — a consumer choice that brings with it a sense of community, as well as a chance to give a big middle finger to the commercial and cultural establishment that they feel has repudiated them.
It’d be nice if Americans could actually come together around the issue of privacy since it’s an area where — regardless of political party — we’re all collectively getting screwed. However, something tells me the “Freedom Phone” isn’t exactly a harbinger of that — more the opposite.