Why you soon may be able to get an encrypted cell phone for under $2,500

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Why you soon may be able to get an encrypted cell phone for under $2,500

Encryption of telephone calls is a funny area, because there is a very high need (your unencrypted conversations can do things like compromise attorney client privilege, give your competitor critical information about your company, and expose you as being a dope. The first two will be decided in a court – the third comes as a consequence of the first two), combined with a very low demand.

By this I mean that if you have a sensitive executive – or even non- executive – position in a company of any significant size, there is a good chance that your conversations are from time to time overheard, and that this is costing your company real money. If so, you have a real need to be making calls over an encrypted line.

On the other hand, the likelihood is that, real need or not, you are not using encryption. In fact, even if you work for a major institution, the likelihood is that there is not a single voice encryption device anywhere in the firm.

This is not because encryptors are unavailable, or that they are horribly expensive, or that they are difficult to use. The PrivatelTM 960V Personal Telephone Security from L3 Communications (http://www.apcominc.com/cs-east/programs/infosec/privatel.htm), which we reviewed in the April 2001 issue of ÆGIS, is small, portable, easy to use, effective, and inexpensive. And yet, few people use it or any other encryption device.

The situation with mobile devices is even worse. While the need is as high as, or higher than it is for landline communications, the options are fewer, and the price is higher. In the U.S., there is the General Dynamics Sectéra system (http://www.gd-decisionsystems.com/sectera/), but that sells for about $2,500, and only comes in a 900/1800/1900 MHz GSM version. While this was fine a few years ago, GSM 850 has now been implemented in Antigua & Barbuda, Argentina, Cayman Islands, Colombia, Dominica, Ecuador, Grenada, Montserrat, Panama, Paraguay, St Kitts & Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent & The Grenadines, and the United States. Since the Sectéra was implemented using the now-discontinued Motorola TimePort, you shouldn’t expect to see a quad-band version. Rohde & Schwarz (Munich) modified the Siemens S35i for encryption, but that is a European 900/1800 MHz handset and sells for around $3,000.

However, for that small group prudently interested in encrypted mobile devices, there is hope on the horizon in the form of voice encryption software being developed for Pocket PC-based terminals. Some will come with the software already installed (€1800), and some will have just the software ($250), with you supplying the handset. Unfortunately, there is at the moment neither a quad-band version of a Pocket PC device, nor is there an 850/1900 MHz device. However, Siemens, which makes the 900/1800 MHz SX45 and the 1900 MHz SX56, is likely to be bringing out an 850/1900 MHz device in the next year.

This means you could now put the software in 900/1800 MHz device (for everywhere but North America), as well as in a 1900 MHz device (for North America), and when the 850/1900 MHz device becomes available use that instead of the 1900 MHz device.

Before getting too excited, keep in mind that good cryptography is not easy, and there is nothing yet to indicate whether these products will be even commercially useful. By this I mean that in a commercial environment we may not really care if the cryptography is more than marginal, or if the NSA can easily crack it. All we really care about is that can’t be easily overheard by those without a court order. Will this be better than the base encryption now available in GSM? Well, for those of us not concerned about being overheard by law enforcement, the bad encryption that comes with GSM may be enough for our needs. Nonetheless, while we have not yet had a chance to see any of these software-driven devices, the concept is interesting, and we look forward to trying them out.

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