Encrypt voice calls, says GCHQ's CESG team ... using CESG encryption

Snooping left hand, meet keen-on-crypto right hand

While the world was distracted by the UK Pry Minister's ban-working-encryption, log-everything-online Investigatory Powers Bill, the civil service was urging government and enterprises to adopt better cryptography for voice calls.

CESG, “the information security arm of GCHQ, and the national technical authority for information assurance”, dropped new guidance (called "Secure voice at OFFICIAL") about protecting voice calls, noting that the PSTN has been considered insecure (“suitable for UNCLASSIFIED calls only”) for some years.

It's even got its very own nifty key exchange protocol it wants vendors to use.

Having decided in 2010 there wasn't a security protocol that it liked, it put forward RFC 6509 (“MIKEY-SAKKE” – more on this in a minute) as its own proposal.

MIKEY-SAKKE is now incorporated into the CESG's Secure Chorus product spec, and the body says as well as Cryptify Call for iOS and Android it's evaluating other products to see if they meet the spec.

Into the future, the spooks reckon VoLTE will open things up even further, creating an ecosystem of products suitable for “government and enterprise customers”.

All of which is fascinating, given that if the code exists, it's certain to escape the control of “government and enterprise customers” and be used to – horrors! – let users create encrypted voice calls.

Is it tinfoil time?

A good question is “why did CESG think the world needed a new key exchange protocol?”, and El Reg is practically certain that question will exercise Snowdenistas around the world.

The surface explanation is that encrypting VoIP calls adds a new wrinkle to encryption, compared to e-mail, Web, or VPNs communications.

When you hit an HTTPS:// Website, for example, the hard work is invisible: the server presents its certificate, and the browser makes sure it likes the cert, and if so, browser and server negotiate to set up an encrypted connection.

It's the business of certificate handling the CESG decided was problematic for someone calling a friend on a smartphone, so it offers this rationale for the protocol: “no certificates need to be distributed. Instead, a user’s identity is their public key. Simply knowing a user’s phone number is enough to establish a secure communications link with them”.

Secure, of course, if the scheme itself is secure – something which will probably lead experts to take another look at the protocol, since its use of elliptic-curve cryptography is at odds with GCHQ's pals the NSA, which is moving instead to “quantum resistant algorithms” (Bruce Schneier wrote about this in August here).

There is one discordant note that The Register is certain will tap a deep vein of paranoia in the outside world. CESG calls RFC 6509 a standard: “a new open cryptography standard – MIKEY SAKKE – was developed and standardised in the IETF”, its Secure voice at OFFICIAL document states (emphasis added).

Except: the RFC describing it says the opposite: “This document is not an Internet Standards Track specification; it is published for informational purposes”, the RFC states.


A presentative at CESG, has contacted us with this statement:

"We do not recognise the claims made in this paper. The MIKEY-SAKKE protocol enables development of secure, scalable, enterprise grade products." ®

Other stories you might like

  • Twitter founder Dorsey beats hasty retweet from the board
    As shareholders sue the social network amid Elon Musk's takeover scramble

    Twitter has officially entered the post-Dorsey age: its founder and two-time CEO's board term expired Wednesday, marking the first time the social media company hasn't had him around in some capacity.

    Jack Dorsey announced his resignation as Twitter chief exec in November 2021, and passed the baton to Parag Agrawal while remaining on the board. Now that board term has ended, and Dorsey has stepped down as expected. Agrawal has taken Dorsey's board seat; Salesforce co-CEO Bret Taylor has assumed the role of Twitter's board chair. 

    In his resignation announcement, Dorsey – who co-founded and is CEO of Block (formerly Square) – said having founders leading the companies they created can be severely limiting for an organization and can serve as a single point of failure. "I believe it's critical a company can stand on its own, free of its founder's influence or direction," Dorsey said. He didn't respond to a request for further comment today. 

    Continue reading
  • Snowflake stock drops as some top customers cut usage
    You might say its valuation is melting away

    IPO darling Snowflake's share price took a beating in an already bearish market for tech stocks after filing weaker than expected financial guidance amid a slowdown in orders from some of its largest customers.

    For its first quarter of fiscal 2023, ended April 30, Snowflake's revenue grew 85 percent year-on-year to $422.4 million. The company made an operating loss of $188.8 million, albeit down from $205.6 million a year ago.

    Although surpassing revenue expectations, the cloud-based data warehousing business saw its valuation tumble 16 percent in extended trading on Wednesday. Its stock price dived from $133 apiece to $117 in after-hours trading, and today is cruising back at $127. That stumble arrived amid a general tech stock sell-off some observers said was overdue.

    Continue reading
  • Amazon investors nuke proposed ethics overhaul and say yes to $212m CEO pay
    Workplace safety, labor organizing, sustainability and, um, wage 'fairness' all struck down in vote

    Amazon CEO Andy Jassy's first shareholder meeting was a rousing success for Amazon leadership and Jassy's bank account. But for activist investors intent on making Amazon more open and transparent, it was nothing short of a disaster.

    While actual voting results haven't been released yet, Amazon general counsel David Zapolsky told Reuters that stock owners voted down fifteen shareholder resolutions addressing topics including workplace safety, labor organizing, sustainability, and pay fairness. Amazon's board recommended voting no on all of the proposals.

    Jassy and the board scored additional victories in the form of shareholder approval for board appointments, executive compensation and a 20-for-1 stock split. Jassy's executive compensation package, which is tied to Amazon stock price and mostly delivered as stock awards over a multi-year period, was $212 million in 2021. 

    Continue reading
  • Confirmed: Broadcom, VMware agree to $61b merger
    Unless anyone out there can make a better offer. Oh, Elon?

    Broadcom has confirmed it intends to acquire VMware in a deal that looks set to be worth $61 billion, if it goes ahead: the agreement provides for a “go-shop” provision under which the virtualization giant may solicit alternative offers.

    Rumors of the proposed merger emerged earlier this week, amid much speculation, but neither of the companies was prepared to comment on the deal before today, when it was disclosed that the boards of directors of both organizations have unanimously approved the agreement.

    Michael Dell and Silver Lake investors, which own just over half of the outstanding shares in VMware between both, have apparently signed support agreements to vote in favor of the transaction, so long as the VMware board continues to recommend the proposed transaction with chip designer Broadcom.

    Continue reading
  • Perl Steering Council lays out a backwards compatible future for Perl 7
    Sensibly written code only, please. Plus: what all those 'heated discussions' were about

    The much-anticipated Perl 7 continues to twinkle in the distance although the final release of 5.36.0 is "just around the corner", according to the Perl Steering Council.

    Well into its fourth decade, the fortunes of Perl have ebbed and flowed over the years. Things came to a head last year, with the departure of former "pumpking" Sawyer X, following what he described as community "hostility."

    Part of the issue stemmed from the planned version 7 release, a key element of which, according to a post by the steering council "was to significantly reduce the boilerplate needed at the top of your code, by enabling a lot of widely used modules / pragmas."

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022