Encrypted Satellite Phone Calls Can Be Hacked In Fractions Of A Second — According To New Research  

Encrypted Satellite Phone Calls Can Be Hacked In Fractions Of A Second — According To New Research  


     Why am I not surprised.  Nothing digital, or ‘connected’ to the Internet, or network/s should ever be considered ‘safe.’  And, to a more of a degree than you probably think — that goes for encryption as well.  Swati Khandelwal had a July 10, 2017 article in the HackerNews.com, warning that “researchers have discovered a new method to decrypt satellite phone communications encrypted with the GMR-2 cypher in “real time” — in some cases, in mere fractions of a second.”

     This “new attack method has been [was recently discovered] by two Chinese researchers; and, is based on previous research by German academicians in 2012, showing that the phone’s encryption can be cracked so quickly — that the attackers can listen in….in real time,” Ms. Khandelwal wrote.  The research was detailed in a paper published earlier this month, see attachment, Ms. Khandelwal notes, “by researchers at the International Association for Cryptologic Research, focused on the GMR-2 encryption algorithm, that is commonly being used in most satellite phones, including British satellite telecom – Inmarsat — to encrypt voice calls in order to prevent eavesdropping,” or so they thought. 

     “Unlike previous 2012 research by German researchers who tried to recover the encryption key with the help of ‘plaintext’ attacks,” Ms. Khandelwal wrote, “the Chinese researchers attempted to “reverse the encryption procedure to deduce the encryption-key from the output keystream directly,” Ms. Khandelwal noted.  “The attack method requires hitting a 3,3GHz satellite stream thousands of times, with an inversion attack, which eventually produces a 64-bit encryption key; and, makes it easier to hunt for the decryption key — allowing attackers to decrypt communications and listen in to a conversation.”

     The demonstrated success of this technique has, not surprisingly, made a lot of folks sit up and take notice.  Previous satellite phone conversations that they thought were secure, since they were encrypted, were in fact vulnerable to hackers.  As was noted, as far back as 2012, there was evidence that these type of encrypted satellite phones were in fact vulnerable; but, this latest research puts any and all doubts to rest.  German researchers had postulated back in 2012 that such phones were likely vulnerable.

     Zack Whittaker, wrote in the July 6, 2017 edition of the online publication, ZeroDay.com, that “an Inmarsat spokesman said that the company “immediately took action ti address the potential security issue; and, this issue was fully addressed in 2012.  We are entirely confident that the issue…..has been completely resolved, and that our satellite phones are secure.”

     But, Matthew Green, a cryprtography professor at Johns Hopkins University, told Mr. Whittaker that “they [the Chinese researchers] seem to have optimized the 2012 attack, so that it’s [the 2012 technique] much faster; and, requires only about a dozen bytes of “known plaintext,” referring to the encryption of a readable message.”  Professor Green added that the attack “was fast enough to allow key recovery (and decryption) in real-time — if one could get the known “plaintext.”

     “From a scientific perspective, it’s a big advance,” Professor Green said; but, also downplayed the actual threat stating “from a practical perspective, it’s unclear,” just how threatening this ‘new’ technique really is. 

     Professor Green’s bottom line:  “maybe don’t [fully] trust satellite [mobile] phone encryption; but, I would have said the same thing in 2012.”  I would have also.  While those of you using encrypted satellite phones are certainly going to be guaranteed that most, if not all of your calls aren’t going to be intercepted, or monitored — versus someone who isn’t using encryption — there are no ironclad guarantees that a sophisticated/determined adversary, who has targeted you — won’t be successful.  Always, always, understand your immediate surroundings, where you are, who you are conversing with; and, whether or not your conversation contains privileged information.  And, even if you do all the right things, there are no guarantees that the party you are talking to — has taken similar precautions.  V/R, RCP

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