A German firm has launched a GSM mobile phone that promises strong end-to-end encryption on calls, preventing the possibility of anybody listening in.
If you think that you'll soon be seeing this on the shelves of your local mobile phone shop though, think again. For a start, the Cryptophone sells for €1,799 per handset, which puts it out of the reach of most buyers. Second, the phone's maker, Berlin-based GSMK, say the phone will not be sold off the shelf because of the measures needed to ensure that the product received by the customer is untampered with and secure. Buyers must buy the phone direct from GSMK.
According to GSMK, the new phone is designed to counteract known measures used to intercept mobile phone calls. While GSM networks are far more secure than their analogue predecessors, there are ways and means to circumvent security measures.
The encryption in GSM is only used to protect the call while it is in the air between the GSM base station and the phone. During its entire route through the telephone network, which may include other wireless links, the call is not protected by encryption. Encryption on the GSM network can also be broken. The equipment needed to do this is extremely expensive and is said to be only available to law enforcement agencies, but it has be known to fall into the hands of criminal organisations.
The Cryptophone is a very familiar-looking device, since it is based around the same HTC smartphone that O2 used as its original XDA platform. The phone runs on a heavily modified version of Microsoft Pocket PC 2002.
GSMK says it is the only manufacturer of such devices that has its source code publicly available for review. It says this will prove that there are no back-doors in the software, thus allaying the fears of the security-conscious. Publication of the source code doesn't compromise the phone's security, according to GSMK. The Cryptophone is engineered in such a way that the encryption key is only stored in the phone for the duration of the call and securely erased immediately afterwards.
One drawback of the device is that it requires the recipient of calls to also use a Cryptophone to ensure security. GSMK does sell the device in pairs, but also offers a free software download that allows any PC with a modem to be used as a Cryptophone.
GSMK says that the Cryptophone comples with German and EU export law. This means the device can be sold freely within the EU and a number of other states such as the US, Japan and Australia. It cannot be sold to customers within Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya and North Korea. A number of other states are subject to tight export controls and a special licence will have to be obtained.