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How a New Super-Secure Phone Blocks Hackers, Crooks and Spies

Katim secure phone from startup Dark MatterKatim secure phone from startup Dark Matter
The new KATIM phone from security start up Dark Matter tries to block common hacking tactics. Photograph by Aaron Pressman/Fortune

As smartphones have become the center of everyone’s digital life, hackers and crooks have come up with increasingly ingenious ways to crack the devices security and steal data.

Security start up Dark Matter has a new, customized phone called the KATIM that tries to head off as many of those new pathways to stolen data as possible.

The slick, black phone, on display at the Mobile World Congress show this week in Barcelona, at first glance looks like many other high-end phones running the Android operating system from Google (GOOGL).

But the KATIM has a bevy additions that are aimed at professionals with valuable data to protect, including custom security software for Android and a few special features. Though it isn’t being sold direct to consumers, the phone shows the way that the industry may evolve as awareness of security vulnerabilities grows.

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First, the phone has an extra button on the side, in addition to the usual power and volume controls. Pressing the button invokes “shield mode,” disabling the phone’s camera and microphone. As former spook turned whistleblower Edward Snowden has warned, hackers, government agencies and others have the capability to covertly switch on those bits and spy on phone users without their knowledge. But the KATIM’s killer switch seemingly blocks that tactic.

Another tricky gambit for stealing data arises where users need to recharge phone batteries on the go. Data thieves have turned public USB charging stations into phone cracking schemes, because the same cable connection that provides power can also download data.

“It’s surprisingly common,” says Jukka Hekkala, a director at Dark Matter who oversees the phone project. To combat this, the KATIM has a software switch that cuts off USB data exchanges, which users can trigger if they are using a public charging station.

When the FBI wanted to crack an iPhone that was used by one of the San Bernardino terrorists, Apple (AAPL) declined to help. At that point, the agency reportedly turned to a private firm that physically cracked open the device to decode data by connecting directly to some of the chips inside. The KATIM phone detects such attempts at tampering with its case and erases sensitive data.

So far, Dark Matter, based in the United Arab Emirates, is only selling the phone to companies and government organizations. Who are the clients? Of course, Hekkala will not say.