Feb 032012
English: QualComm Satellite Phone

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Could allow eavesdropping in real-time

Researchers in Germany claim to have for the first time cracked two encryption systems of satellite phones, a breakthrough in call deciphering, which may threaten the security of such devices worldwide.

A team at Ruhr University Bochum in Germany says that the cracked encryption algorithms, known as GMR-1 and GMR-2, are actually standards used across satellite phone operators globally.

“We were able to completely reverse engineer the encryption algorithms employed,” The Daily Telegraph quoted Benedikt Driessen and Ralf Hund of the university as saying.

According to Mr. Driessen, the equipment and software needed to intercept and decrypt satellite phone calls from hundreds of thousands of users would cost as little as U.S. dollars 2000.

The demonstration system takes up to half-an-hour to decipher a call, but a more powerful computer would allow eavesdropping in real-time, he said. By publishing details of how to break the encryption, the researchers hope to prompt ETSI, the organisation that sets the standards, to create stronger algorithms.

A major problem with GMR-1 and GMR-2 was that their details were kept secret so security experts cannot test them. “This is actually already happening for mobile phones after their encryption was shown to be weak. They are now disclosing the encryption algorithms rather than keeping them secret, so they can be tested. This did not happen with satellite phones,” Mr. Driessen said.

Experts have expressed concern over the breakthrough.

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