Researchers break satellite phone encryption

Researchers from a German university have announced that they have cracked the algorithm for securing satellite phone networks used by the military and remote field workers worldwide.

Academics Benedikt Driessen and Ralf Hund from Ruhr University Bochum revealed the breakthrough at a symposium this morning. Byreverse engineering and successfully breaking the GMR-1 and GMR-2 voice ciphers used by many satellite networks, they have exposed how easy it can be for sensitive calls to be intercepted.

The report ‘Don’t Trust Satellite Phones’ outlines how anyone with access to a suitably programmed computer and a simple software-defined radio capable of receiving satellite frequencies can intercept and listen to satellite phone calls, including calls made by disaster relief agencies and the military.

Reacting to the news, Bjoern Rupp, CEO at GSMK Cryptophone, said: “This breakthrough has major implications for the military, civilians engaged on overseas operations, or indeed anyone using satellite phones to make sensitive calls in turbulent areas.

“The ciphers that have been compromised are used by many geostationary satellite networks that are based on the principle of one single satellite covering a huge geographic area, often the size of an entire continent. So by using the insight from this research, it is easily possible to listen to a huge number of confidential satellite calls from your continent with only modest technical effort.

“Many government agencies, including the military, make many of their communications through their own technology. However, they often still rely on satellite phones to communicate with locals, back to HQ or people at home. With this announcement, it has been shown that the satellite handsets’ built-in encryption on these calls is no longer secure, which could pose a considerable threat to the armed forces and civilians alike.

“This has highlighted the need for strong end-to-end encryption, which would prevent eavesdroppers from being able to intercept calls in this way. At GSMK, we have developed end-to-end satellite voice encryption solutions that are fully compatible with GSMK’s secure mobile and fixed-line phones, thus helping to combat the threat of ubiquitous satellite interception.”

The breakthrough echoes the research by German computer scientist Karsten Nohl in 2009, which exposed how mobile phones using GSM technology can be intercepted.

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