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Theme fund: NGI0 PET
Start: 2020-06
End: 2022-10
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RISC-V Phone

Open hardware RISC-V Phone

The goal of the "RISC-V Phone" project is to develop a simple, fully featured and privacy enhanced mobile phone. It is built using off-the-shelf inexpensive components which are easy to assemble even in a home lab. The software for it is small, simple and easy to audit. Basic phone functionality is running on a secure RISC-V microcontroller (FE310 from SiFive) which controls all peripherals: microphone, speaker, display/touch controller, camera. The phone will be using esp32 for WiFi and Bluetooth, along with industry standard mPCIe modem for cellular communication. Graphics/touch panel controller FT813 enables advanced user experience. The phone will provide VOIP/messaging application using packet data protocol similar to CurveCP which features end-to-end encryption and onion routing. There is also a socket for optional ARM SoM which shares display/touch panel with the main board.

Why does this actually matter to end users?

Consumers and businesses overpay for computer hardware, because the market is not working well. When you go to a store to buy a laptop or mobile phone, you may see different brands on the outside but choice in terms of what is inside the box (in particular the most expensive component, the processor technology) is pretty much limited to the same core technologies and large vendors that have been in the market for decades. This has a much bigger effect on the users than just the hefty price tag of the hardware, because the technologies at that level impact all other technologies and insecurity at that level break security across the board.

In the field of software, open source has already become the default option in the market for any new setup. In hardware, the situation is different. Users - even very big users such as governments - have very little control over the actual hardware security of the technology they critically depend on every day. Security experts continue to uncover major security issues, and users are rightly concerned about the security of their private data as well as the continuity of their operations. But in a locked-down market there is little anyone can do, because the lack of alternatives. European companies are locked out of the possibility to contribute solutions and start new businesses that can change the status quo.

The issue of insecure hardware becomes even more important when you think of fast and widespread the use of smartphones has grown. The device that we carry with us every single day and use to call each other, do our personal banking, maintain our social life and manage a host of other online services with is frustratingly opaque and riddled with security vulnerabilities and backdoors. And because most smartphones are produced by a select number of massive companies, the entry to market for more secure and private alternative smartphone hardware is practically impossible.

The RISC-V Phone is an effort to break through this standstill by simply proving it can indeed be done. The project aims to build a simple privacy-enhanced mobile phone using off-the-shelf components enthusiasts and researchers can easily assemble on their own, allowing for permissionless innovation. All the hardware parts are as open as possible and the software that runs on it is a small collection of auditable components. Emphasis is put on usability and familiarity, so users interested in having a fully transparent phone can simply pick up this device and get on with their lives.

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This project was funded through the NGI0 PET Fund, a fund established by NLnet with financial support from the European Commission's Next Generation Internet programme, under the aegis of DG Communications Networks, Content and Technology under grant agreement No 825310.