Blackphone Evaluation: Putting A Price On Privacy

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Whether or not it is government companies, identification thieves, opportunistic hackers or marketers, everybody desires your private information. As we dwell more of our lives than ever online, we're more and more conscious of how much data we produce, and the need to guard it. With smartphones enjoying a key position in our at all times-linked life-style, there's a brand new breed of companies and units for consumers who need to remain off the grid with out going offline. Leading the cost is the Blackphone, a $629 handset that prioritizes privacy over every little thing else. Running a customized, safe version of Android and transport with a wealth of privacy instruments preinstalled, it claims to be an "unparalleled product" where data protection is worried. Thanks to the superior of us at on-line retailer GSM Nation, who were kind enough to ship one for evaluation, I have been attending to know the machine and discovering out the way it keeps data safe from prying eyes. The Blackphone is billed as a security- and privateness-first system, not one with a record-breaking spec sheet or award-profitable design. It should not come as much of shock, then, that its creators haven't invested in making the telephone visually fascinating. An organization called SGP Technologies officially makes the Blackphone, but it's, in fact, a joint venture of encrypted-comms specialist Silent Circle and Spanish handset-maker GeeksPhone. While the latter's creations tend to prioritize operate over form, none have appeared fairly as generic as the Blackphone, which could've easily come from any OEM competent in making squares with rounded corners. And the fact is that is precisely where it got here from: The Wax from French company Wiko is basically the same telephone, albeit with a barely decrease-clocked processor and less inside storage. There is no prize for guessing what colour options the Blackphone comes in, as a result of there's only one. A mixture of several types of black plastic make up the complete body of the phone, with a matte-effect again panel hiding the removable battery and microSD/micro-SIM slots. The outer rim of the device is clad in a deeper, almost shiny plastic dashed with silvery flecks all through. The identical material is used to cap off the decrease end of the device -- a design flourish harking back to some older Sony phones. The Blackphone is laid out in fairly commonplace fashion. On the top edge, you'll find the micro-USB port and headphone jack; on the bottom rim is the primary mic; and over on the fitting are the power button and volume rocker. Up entrance is a 4.7-inch display, with the earpiece, a multicolor notification LED and front-going through camera above. Under the display screen are three backlit capacitive keys in the normal Android arrangement. Transferring around to the backside, every thing runs down a central column. From the bottom up, we now have: a small loudspeaker grille and white Blackphone logo; a secondary mic; the primary digital camera; and an oblong companion flash. The digital camera protrudes from the again by about 2mm, meaning it comes in touch with surfaces when the cellphone is mendacity face-up. Whereas there is a ring of metal across the lens, it isn't elevated and thus will not cease an abrasive floor from having its approach with the glass cowl. 141 x sixty nine x 9mm (not counting the digicam bulge). Meaning there's a good quantity of bezel framing the display screen, however not enough to look outside of regular proportions. Extra importantly, the Blackphone is snug to carry and use one-handed. An agreeable width takes some credit, however then there are the rounded corners that sit nicely within the palm, and the slight curvature to the again panel as it meets the edge of the machine. The matte plastic of the battery cover additionally adds some grip, which helps with single-handed operation. At 119g (4.2 ounces), the handset is extremely gentle. That is great for when you are carrying the telephone around in your pocket all day, nevertheless it also reminds you that is mainly an all-plastic affair. Don't get me wrong, every thing is put together with a comparatively high level of care, but I would not call the construct high quality sturdy when you possibly can bend and flex the thing easily. Then there are little lapses the QA division has obviously let slide, like the again panel not fitting snugly at the top edge, or the glass protecting the digicam lens glued slightly off-heart. So, the Blackphone does not look special, however the generic design nearly complements the discreet nature of the gadget. It is unlikely to draw the attention of an opportunistic thief scoping out tables at the local bar, for example. I doubt creating a furtive system was a aware choice, although, and more the result of making an attempt to maintain hardware prices down. People are interested within the Blackphone because of its safety-focused Android build and app suite, so I understand why visible enchantment wasn't much of a precedence. It is necessary to recollect, nevertheless, that it is a $629 telephone, and yet it seems to be and looks like something for which you would not even pay half that. Nothing about the precise hardware is integral to the Blackphone's safety options, so once more, when you strip away the customized software, that is mainly a Wiko Wax, which costs €187, or around $240. The Blackphone has a 4.7-inch, 1,280 x 720 display, which is all the decision you need on a screen that dimension. With a pixel density of 312.Forty seven ppi, even the smallest, thinnest fonts are nicely-outlined. The color temperature of the display is price praising, with blacks and whites absolutely spot-on. Different colours, too, look rich with out being needlessly saturated. The standard of the panel is nice in that respect, however it's missing in different areas. Brightness is an issue, for one, as there is not enough of a difference between the bottom and highest settings. This is not a problem in most situations, however on a shiny day, the show doesn't kick out almost enough energy to cut via glare and whatever fingerprint grime is stuck to the glass. Viewing angles are additionally disappointing, with definition and colours falling away quickly as reflections from the glass take over. Nonetheless, it is a fairly good panel; I simply wish it were simpler to learn in direct sunlight. And now, the actual reason the Blackphone exists: its privacy-focused software. The handset runs a customized fork of Android 4.4.2 KitKat with the catchy name PrivatOS (pronounced personal O S). Whereas custom builds often layer further features or UI parts on high of what's already there, PrivatOS does the precise opposite. In reality, it strips away virtually everything you are used to seeing on an Android system. You get only the naked essentials for making calls, sending messages and storing contacts, in addition to a calendar, internet browser, calculator, e mail and camera apps. The sound recorder is sort of a luxury, as is the music participant and gallery app, which doubles as the video participant. That is sort of literally the entirety of stock Android apps, meaning there's no Google integration in anyway -- no app store, no maps, or anything you may use frequently outdoors of the basic smartphone capabilities. However, that is the entire level of the Blackphone, as a result of a uncooked machine is as safe as it gets. Telephone manufacturers should license Google's providers if they need them to work on their units, but this would not actually make sense for the Blackphone. It will introduce all method of counterintuitive data traffic that is more or less out of your control -- suppose Google Now pulling appointment info out of your calendar, Gmail syncing your contacts and Play Music cataloging the MP3s stored on your machine. That being said, SGP is working towards a Google license so Blackphone customers can set up these companies at their own discretion, and threat. For the reason that Blackphone does not have Google Play access, you may need to get your apps elsewhere. This means sideloading or downloading APK information straight onto the system (on that be aware, you'll have to get an APK installer from someplace) and/or trusting a unique app store. You may sideload the Play store, by the way in which, but it surely will not even load. Of the alternatives that don't require a license, Amazon's is an obvious choice because of its relatively broad app choice and how simple it's to get hold of. Going down this route, nonetheless, will inevitably lead to the invention that some apps simply aren't compatible with the Blackphone, or are likely to crash usually. That is part of the deal, I am afraid. Out of the box, a setup wizard guides you through varied steps to secure the handset. The primary layer is the basic (and necessary) lock-screen PIN, which needs to be not less than 5 digits. Then you're prompted to agree to plain Android knowledge encryption, which takes around half an hour on a fresh machine. After that, it's important to arrange your Silent Circle account, which is for the encrypted communication apps that come bundled with the Blackphone. That completes the preliminary setup, but personalizing the system is a bit extra sophisticated. Every potential chink in Android's armor has been plugged, or rather, removed. There's no way to sync contacts or calendars, for instance, which means it's a must to import these manually. And as I found out, it was ineffective exporting my Google Rolodex to a microSD card as a result of the contacts app will not look for it there (and there's no file manager to move it to the interior storage). Instead, I ended up plugging in an email account and forwarding a vCard library to myself. I am unable to claim to be an professional in smartphone security, and but when reaching the purpose of really being in a position to use the phone instead of just staring at it, I was acutely conscious of how walled-in it was. It is a commerce-off of privateness over comfort. Other than the email app requesting updates as soon as every five minutes, I wasn't connected to something. There's just no data coming in and out of the telephone -- no app retailer checking for updates, no weather widget pinging a server for info, no freemium game hitting me with low cost notifications. But, how have you learnt PrivatOS is basically as secure as the corporate says? Well, aside from having a bit of religion, there's the fact it's attracted the eye of several safety researchers seeking a problem. SGP Technologies even made the seemingly brave move of bringing the Blackphone to a recent Def Con hacking convention, the place it was rooted (which grants entry to a handset's inner workings). Whereas this is basically true and something that should not be possible, the phone was working an older model of PrivatOS that still contained a key vulnerability. Additionally, standard Android encryption hadn't been enabled, and the handset in question was unlocked, which means the hack occurred after the lock-display PIN had been entered. So in Blackphone's protection, it wasn't the most realistic of hacking situations. The crew at Bluebox Security additionally found a technique of getting the usernames and passwords for the bundled privacy apps, which was patched eleven days later. A bug bounty program has launched lately, too, providing safety researchers cash cash in alternate for locating vulnerabilities in both the Blackphone itself, or the Silent Circle suite of apps. Since launch, the Blackphone has acquired a PrivatOS replace every month with bug fixes and value improvements. SGP will also tell you the way it delivers OTA upgrades securely (if you'll be able to perceive it), and admits its "merchandise and options will never be good." It appears committed to taking quick action when vulnerabilities are discovered, however, and intends to be transparent with any information it may well share about security issues. Part of PrivatOS is the bundled suite of safety apps, together with the Silent Circle encrypted communications assortment that comes straight from one in every of the companies that own SGP Applied sciences. You need to "unlock" the apps each time you restart the handset and from there, you can make HD voice or video calls over any knowledge community (3G/4G/WiFi). The calls are encrypted from end to end, and Silent Circle is more than pleased to talk you through the fancy encryption protocols it makes use of to make sure your call is non-public. There's additionally an encrypted immediate messing app and separate Silent Circle address e-book. All of it works cross-platform, too, across iOS, Android and Windows. The only issue is the opposite particular person has to have the identical software program to obtain the encrypted name, so it is not like you're immediately James Bond. The bad information is that Silent Circle requires a subscription, with the basic package deal costing $10 monthly. The good news is the Blackphone includes one free 12 months of the basic plan for you, and one free yr for certainly one of your nearest and dearest. There's additionally a trio of privacy apps preinstalled on the Blackphone from "selected" buddies. Disconnect Secure Wireless is an utility that routes any web visitors via a VPN if it deems you're on an unsecured community. You may turn it on or off manually, of course, and with the Blackphone, you get 1GB of VPN-piped site visitors per thirty days for one 12 months (this may be upgraded to an infinite plan for $three per month or $30 per 12 months). Disconnect Safe Wireless also consists of a non-public searching function that hinders the monitoring potential of internet sites, and also you get Disconnect Search, too. This allows you to search anonymously whereas still utilizing widespread engines like Google, Bing and Yahoo. SpiderOak Blackphone Edition is a secure cloud-storage service, permitting you to back up recordsdata, as well as share them with others using password-protected invites. Your knowledge is encrypted all by the method, so not even from the SpiderOak server room are you able to access it. Only the mobile and desktop shoppers, when logged in, have the correct keys to unlock your information. Like most apps bundled on the Blackphone, this degree of protection means you, and also you alone, are the gatekeeper. There is no password-restoration feature as a result of that may require storing delicate information remotely. SpiderOak gives 2GB of storage free, but with the Blackphone that jumps up to 5GB for one 12 months (this is an exclusive provide, as SpiderOak subscription plans start at $10 per 30 days/$100 per year for a 100GB "skilled" account). The ultimate third-celebration app included in your Blackphone purchase is a free model of the Kismet Smarter Wi-Fi Manager. It basically switches off WiFi when you're away from a trusted network, and turns it back on when you are near an access point you have related to earlier than. It does this by remembering the position of the WiFi network in relation to particular cell towers. You can too set it as much as disable WiFi when you are in vary of a well-recognized Bluetooth system, or turn it on and off for specified periods of time. A couple of privacy features are particular to Blackphone, like the aforementioned setup wizard, and an accompanying License Supervisor device. This app is for reading a QR-code that's printed on a card included with the smartphone, and it robotically unlocks the one-year subscriptions to the Silent Circle suite, Disconnect Secure Wireless and SpiderOak. Another app, Distant Wipe, does exactly what its title suggests: It means that you can instruct the telephone to energy off, delete all knowledge or "brace for impact" remotely. That third possibility is a drive-stop command that'll kill any apps from a preset record which can be at present operating within the background. The Blackphone Security Center might be the most important app on the whole device, because it enables you to handle the permissions for every other app. By default, it will not give any apps you install the permission to read personal knowledge like your contact list. Past that, although, you can management precisely what an app has access to, even the bundled software. You can even deny the default music player the power to alter gadget quantity, for instance. It is not all that essential when you're dealing with what's preinstalled on the gadget, however you possibly can ensure you may have full dominion over something you install thereafter. PrivatOS and its bundled apps/free subscriptions are really what you are paying for when you buy a Blackphone. As I've talked about, you will get more or less the same phone for $240 under a special title. That extra 390-odd dollars goes toward not solely the cost of OS improvement and Blackphone-solely apps, but in addition the "$399 in extra value" you get from one yr of Silent Circle, one further account and the Disconnect Secure Wireless/SpiderOak subscriptions. Potential consumers should remember that in the course of the course of the evaluation course of, the subscriptions included with the machine have been scaled back drastically -- that "$399 in additional worth" was truly $829 a couple of days in the past (at the time of publication). Previously, the private subscriptions to Silent Circle, Disconnect Secure Wireless and SpiderOak were for two years, not one. Also, you used to obtain three one-year reward subscriptions to Silent Circle, and now you only get the one. I requested Blackphone about this transformation, and was told the unique bundle was an introductory supply for anybody buying the system within the primary three months of launch. Moreover, both clients and prospective distribution channels have apparently been "overwhelmingly in favor" of simplifying it. The Blackphone is not focused at your regular smartphone client, which is why I am not too hung up on certain foibles like its generic design, even when it is a expensive machine. In the same vein, I wasn't expecting much from the imaging experience, which is why I'm pleasantly stunned at just how capable the cameras are. Now, it might seem strange that the Blackphone even has cameras in the primary place, what with it being so concerned with privateness. However keep in mind that beneath its custom software program, the Blackphone is an OEM machine, not a handset designed from scratch with high-notch safety in thoughts. For starters, there is a 5-megapixel, fastened-focus shooter up entrance for selfies and video calling. Not dangerous, considering the Blackphone may've gotten away with a simple VGA or 1.3MP sensor. The primary camera isn't an enormous upgrade at eight megapixels (with autofocus), but it surely takes good photos in a fairly wide selection of scenarios. And i a lot desire versatility to resolution on the camera you are taking in all places with you. In bright situations, photos are crisp and color reproduction is impeccable. The digital camera is particularly impressive within the macro range, with the autofocus shortly homing in on the subject of that particular close-up. The automated camera settings are also very well-tuned -- significantly white steadiness, which copes with artificial lighting higher than any smartphone digicam I've used in some time. Auto-publicity compensation would not leave much to be desired, but photos typically come out on the darkish side when natural mild begins working towards you and you are capturing a panorama (that is the case with most handsets, although). HDR mode spits out some good, high-distinction photos when the scene is amenable to this kind of magic, nevertheless it really is available in handy in low-light conditions. Now, the primary digicam is not superb when light is missing, however it is not less than approaching the form of mettle Nokia and Motorola have managed to realize regardless of low megapixel counts. I'm still encouraged by the number of photons the sensor is able to suck up in such situations, but the white steadiness setting tends to use an unnecessary purple filter to darker scenes. That is the place the HDR mode is available in helpful, as long as you're keen to attend a couple seconds for the picture to course of. I've had no points with white steadiness when taking HDR photographs in low light, and it makes for a brighter and barely less noisy picture in contrast with a regular photo. There's all the time the companion flash as a final resort, and it kicks out an honest cone of mild. The usual issues with using a flash nonetheless apply right here, like washed-out footage with pitch-black backgrounds. Other than HDR, there are not any other particular modes like burst seize and even panorama. You're coping with a critically restricted stock digital camera app that does stills, video and nothing else. That being stated, it's very responsive. The app boots up immediately, and the shutter-response time is almost as fast, which somewhat makes up for the lack of burst-capture assist. Image-processing time obviously will increase in HDR mode, however only as much as around a second in good circumstances. When mild starts fading, the autofocus and shutter speeds starts to decline in parallel, however this is all pretty regular. The app itself is a simple affair, with only a few settings to regulate: white balance, publicity compensation, scene choice and, in fact, image resolution. Should you wish to tweak any of these manually, they're all rapidly accessible from the viewfinder window. There is one noticeable subject with the digicam app: It hangs for a couple of second when you are turning the telephone from panorama to portrait orientation. The vast majority of the time, it resumes the way in which it ought to, nevertheless it does sometimes crash. Okay. There's a drop in readability in comparison with stills when filming in 1080p, and alongside the additional noise, it sometimes drops just a few frames when you are moving or panning rapidly. Auto-exposure compensation will be a bit of skittish as well, however again, this is a reasonably frequent drawback with smartphone cameras. Audio quality is notably poor. Not solely is the amount extremely low, but also every part sounds muffled and distant. Recordings additionally don't hold up in low gentle nearly as well as stills, however you may nonetheless go for a grainy, ill-outlined clip if the state of affairs absolutely requires it. The Blackphone is one among only some handsets packing NVIDIA's quad-core, 2GHz Tegra 4i SoC, and right here it's paired with 1GB of RAM and 16 gigs of internal storage, though only round 12 and a half of that's user-accessible. There's all the time the microSD slot that helps up to 128GB playing cards if you need extra, of course. NVIDIA has a reference machine it makes use of to exhibit the graphics capabilities of its mobile chip, but naturally I had to test that myself. With the Google Play retailer unavailable, I looked for essentially the most intensive-trying 3D video games I might discover in Amazon's app retailer, and settled on GT Racing 2, Angry Birds Go! NVIDIA is aware of a factor or three about gaming, so it is no surprise it handled all of my decisions with ease -- most of the time, anyway. I was notably acutely aware of fast loading occasions, both when booting up the titles and hopping into different tracks within them. I'm hesitant to pin this on NVIDIA's chip, though, as I had related experiences when using non-intensive apps, and infrequently when just cycling by means of menus or the app drawer. Otherwise, it is relatively fast generally use, however you'll be able to provoke it into stuttering by attempting to do a lot too quickly -- kind of like an previous Laptop that's on its method out. Once i started to feel it getting too sluggish, a reboot introduced it back up to speed. I've already mentioned the digicam app can stall when rotating the phone, which leads me to imagine there's some software program optimization or bug fixes to be done. The security Middle permissions supervisor runs in the background whereas the vast majority of apps are open, too, which may very well be to blame for among the stuttering. It by no means will get to the purpose of really irritating, however let's simply say it's nowhere near as slick because it might be, particularly when the Blackphone runs a stripped-down, albeit custom Android build. NVIDIA's chip additionally includes an LTE radio, which is able to as much as one hundred Mbps obtain speeds. That is as fast as the Cat three customary goes, but NVIDIA has achieved Cat 4 speeds with newer Tegra 4i software program. Blackphone is currently testing this Cat 4 update internally, and if all goes nicely, I'm told it's going to be rolled out before the top of the yr. For reference, the North American model helps bands 4, 7 and 17, and the worldwide model 3, 7 and 20. I had no points with internet efficiency using the inventory browser. Websites load quickly (as fast as you expect them to on a cell system, anyway) and tiling is just simply noticeable when shortly zooming in and out of desktop websites. Navigating around websites is clean, too, and it is necessary to notice that running site visitors by way of the Disconnect Secure Wireless VPN service didn't seem to have any influence on performance. The music-listening experience on the Blackphone is mainly the identical as it's on every other smartphone. It is clear and crisp enough, however lacking readability on the low end, so keep these bass-boosting headphones at the prepared. It is also noticeably lacking in quantity, however this could solely be an issue if you are carrying leaky headphones in a noisy surroundings. Any over- or in-ears will render this downside moot. The loudspeaker is, amazingly, one of many worst I've come across, with distortion making music nearly unrecognizable. It is simply advantageous for taking palms-free calls, although. Connectivity-clever, the Blackphone has dual-band WiFi 802.11b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.Zero LE, Miracast assist and GPS. Whereas this covers most bases, it's missing 802.11ac, NFC, GLONASS, et cetera -- stuff you'd usually anticipate in a $629 handset. It's hard to really decide GPS performance, because the Blackphone would not have any mapping or navigation apps out of the field. A sideloaded version of Google Maps (and the cellular webpage) refuses to communicate with the GPS module, as does Yelp (downloaded from the Amazon app retailer). MapQuest (also from the Amazon store) is the only app that will efficiently house in on my location, but mapping knowledge hundreds painfully slowly over a cellular connection for some reason. The GPS module is speculated to be fully functional, as you've gotten complete management over what apps can entry it by the Blackphone Safety Heart. App compatibility issues strike again, it appears. I had no bother with WiFi connections themselves, however it is worrying that at around six ft from my router, it still solely registers two out of three bars of reception. The cellular connection is extra of the same. In my South London residence, I'm usually at full bars whatever the phone I am utilizing, however I managed solely two out of four with the Blackphone. If you are in a low-reception space or have WiFi dull spots around your house, these seemingly underpowered elements may offer you some hassle. However, the Bluetooth labored simply positive, with quick gadget discovery and connections. The Blackphone's 2,000mAh battery is neither extraordinary nor horrible. With intensive use -- including searching, downloading and putting in APKs, listening to music, checking electronic mail, taking footage and some transient gaming spurts -- it acquired through almost an entire day with out dying, although I did cut again on display time once i noticed the battery dropping to alarming share levels. With barely more conservative use, it lasted a day and a half without requiring charging. The Blackphone retails for a whopping $629 if purchased direct from SGP, and the only reseller I do know of is GSM Nation, which can promote you one for only $549 (disclaimer: GSM Nation provided our evaluate handset). For that kind of cash you possibly can have your pick of any smartphone in the marketplace, flagship or in any other case. You're not just shopping for another smartphone, though; you're buying a substrate for PrivatOS and its included apps to reside on. On this respect, the Blackphone is a niche gadget that's all however incomparable to anything on the market. There are a number of encrypted-communication apps and comparable privacy providers for each Android and iOS platforms, however within the realm of tremendous-secure handsets, you don't have a lot alternative. Boeing has developed its personal "Black" phone particularly for the navy and certain companies, which even has a modular design to include extras like photo voltaic charging, satellite tv for pc communications and biometric sensors. The only different safety-centered machine for the patron market is the FreedomPop Privateness Telephone, a Galaxy S II with added software program for encrypted comms and safer internet access by way of VPNs. At $189, it's a bargain in comparison with the Blackphone, however then once more, it would not take privacy to quite the same extreme. In the event you look on the Blackphone purely from a hardware perspective, it's nothing particular. It has LTE, a very good set of cameras and acceptable specs, but it's hardly a poster little one for inspired design, and the show may do with being about twice as powerful. As you've heard more than a few instances already, it's all about the software. That's not good either, though, with spotty app support and some performance kinks that should be ironed out. Then there's the on a regular basis person expertise. I understand you can't exactly install all of Google's companies as commonplace and still call the factor safe, however folks will inevitably need to make use of the phone for issues aside from its basic features. Finally, this needs to be at the discretion of the person user, but anybody that is not au fait with various apps shops and side-loading APKs will wrestle. The Blackphone may do a better job of supporting prospects on this regard, with out them needing to dig by means of boards for solutions. Possibly in future iterations of PrivatOS, or other security-centric phones that come to the market, we'll see a greater steadiness between convenience and privacy. For now, though, the Blackphone will not be for the faint of coronary heart. All this being stated, you cannot actually fault how locked-down it is, and regardless of the high value tag, you are primarily getting subsidized subscriptions to some of the best cell security services, as well as helpful bespoke apps like the security Middle permissions manager. If privateness is important to you, the Blackphone is nearly actually what you're after in a cell machine. Besides, you do not have a lot selection at the moment. One thing I'm nonetheless coming to terms with, nonetheless, is the concept of promoting peace of thoughts. As Edward Snowden continues to leak details about how the NSA and different national authorities businesses have been/are hoovering up every bit of private knowledge available to them, digital privateness has by no means been a hotter topic. With individuals wanting extra control over how their information is dealt with, it was inevitable that merchandise like the Blackphone would seem. There is a high-quality line between leveraging a mild world hysteria to sell a niche and expensive smartphone, and creating the very best product to serve a growing market need -- and in that sense, PrivatOS and the Blackphone's bundled apps are more likely to fulfill even the most demanding privateness-acutely aware consumer. I suppose it would not actually matter both method: No person's forcing anybody to purchase an excellent-safe handset. And, even when the Blackphone is one in every of a new, shrewd era of opportunistic ventures in this space, it cannot be blamed for creating the demand. 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