Privatel™ Personal Telephone Security

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Privatel™ 960V Personal Telephone Security

L3 Communications

1 Federal Street, 3 A&E 3 SW, Camden NJ 08103

The Privatel 960V is a small (5.5″ x 3.5″ x 1.65″), portable (under a pound) telephone encryption device. It comes with a normal-looking power adapter such as might be used with any portable device — either U.S. or European (get both if you travel) — and a carrying case. The Privatel connects between the handset of your telephone and the body of the telephone, which allows it to be used on proprietary PBXs, ISDN terminals VoIP phones, and INMARSAT terminals, as well as standard analog telephones. Connecting it is easy: You unplug the coiled handset cord from your telephone and plug it into the side of the Privatel. You then take a short (provided) cable and connect the Privatel to the jack where you just unplugged the handset.

The encryption is 168 Bit Triple DES and the key management is 1024 bit Diffie-Hellman, which are public, rather than proprietary algorithms, which is advantageous as there is some assurance that people in the trade have been beating on the algorithm to find its weaknesses. Indeed, the device has FIPS 140-1 certification. The device has a self-test, can be locked for personal use by a Personal Identification Number (PIN) and allows verification that there is no third party spoofing the connection. Will the encryption impede real- time legal wiretaps? Frankly, we have no idea, and it is one of those questions for which we don’t actually expect a serious answer.

Along the road from RCA to GE Aerospace to Martin Marietta to Lockheed Martin to L-3 the company has learned a lot about secure communications, and indeed make STEs, among other things. We ran into L-3 at the national OPSEC conference and exhibition sponsored by the IOSS. The Privatel is L-3’s commercial counterpart to their government offerings.

Setup is trivial. Each model telephone uses a specific phone code (which tells the device things about the internals of the phone). While some models and their associated phone codes come in the instruction book and quick reference card, the online listing at east/programs/infosec/priva_codes.htm should be used, rather than the supplied instructions. If your phone is not listed, or there are problems, a call to their help line should get you straightened out.

In relatively rare (they report three such incidents, of which we were the third) circumstances involving residential lines far from a switch, the software modem will be unable to make a secure connection, which is likely to tempt you to speak unsecured. L-3 is working on this problem.

Operation, once everything has been set up, is straightforward. You make your phone call to another party with a Privatel, and, when they are on, one of you pushes the SECURE button. The modems then exchange keys, showing a unique key number on each device. You make sure this number is the same on both of your units to assure you are not being spoofed by a third party, and are then free to speak. Voice quality is excellent, and not markedly different from a non-secure call. If you get bounced out of a secure connection you get three beeps, and the display changes to say you are back to non-secure.

Once you resolve any phone code issues, (and assuming you are not the fourth unfortunate with line problems) the Privatel is a pleasure to use, and you should have a high level of confidence in the privacy of the transmission from all but government intervention.

In the works is a tri-band GSM handset. This will address the issue of using a cell phone. As it stands now, if you make a call from a GSM handset to a GSM handset you have some level of security in the transmission (albeit none within the switch, which is where legal taps are done). If you make a call to a landline, the call is vulnerable in the switch and on the landline side. The new handset would allow you to make a secure call — in transmission, and through the switch — to a Privatel-equipped landline, or another of the encrypted handsets. Given the widespread use of GSM in most of the world, its rapid growth in the US, and the upcoming implementation of GSM 1800 in Brazil (as well as places where the 900MHz bandwidth has been supplemented with 1800MHz GSM, this handset should make a welcome addition to secure commercial communication.

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