HANNOVER, Germany—Secure, encrypted voice communications aren’t exactly new. Military and other government users have had the capability for years. At CeBIT two years ago, SecuSmart brought the first secure cell phone communications to BlackBerry devices.
Since that time, the market for such encrypted communications has grown, but the technology has always been limited to government users.
Now that’s changed. Two companies are showing secure mobile communications that are available to anyone. One of those companies is SecuSmart, which has moved beyond just working with BlackBerry, and now offers secure voice on Android and iOS devices with BlackBerry 10 device support coming in the second quarter.
Currently, the SecuSmart encryption app is being handled through Vodafone in the United Kingdom. But according to Hans-Christophe Quelle, managing director of SecuSmart, the app and its related service soon will be available in the United States. Previously, the company’s encryption products required a micro SD card to perform the encryption, but now that’s only necessary for the level of security required by government agencies.
SecuSmart is positioning the secure calling app to celebrities, politicians and business executives. To do this, the company had to do away with the requirement to have the encryption card in the phone, and instead is doing the work with software.
The app itself is available in the iOS and Android app stores, but it needs the Vodafone connection to function for billing. SecuSmart is also working with Samsung and BlackBerry to provide chip-based encryption for Samsung phones and tablets.
GSMK, meanwhile, has introduced the CryptoPhone, which is available in the United States and Europe now. There are three versions of the CryptoPhone, one that runs on Android phones, one for less capable feature phones and a third for desk phones. Unlike the SecuSmart phones, GSMK does not use an add-in chip, but rather modifies the firmware on the phone itself.
The CryptoPhone software adds some significant features to the smartphones on which it’s installed, including an intrusion-detection module that will automatically reboot the phone to prevent potential malware infections.
The CryptoPhone provides voice encryption and it can also encrypt messages with the same 256-bit method that it uses for voice encryption. The phones also include a hardened operating system, a baseband firewall, encrypted storage and it has configurable security profiles.
The security can be set so that the phone can detect when it’s connected to a bogus cell site or even when the phone is being tracked. Currently, the CryptoPhone software runs on Samsung and Motorola Android phones. A version for Windows Phone is in development.
CryptoPhone also makes an encryption app that provides secure voice for Android, iOS and soon Windows phones. Currently, that app is available from wireless carriers in Europe, mostly from T-Mobile.
CeBIT: Voice Encryption Not Just for Government Agencies Anymore
There’s no word yet which carriers in the United States will offer the app-based secure voice, although Björn Rupp, CEO of GSMK, said it should be available in 2015. T-Mobile is providing the service for €20 to €50 per month, he said.
I had a series of conversations with the companies while at CeBIT, and I found that the demand for secure calling has gone far beyond the resource-heavy encryption systems of years past. Now, with the computing power and memory available on modern smartphones, software-only encryption becomes possible.
One topic that came to the fore during my conversations with executives of SecuSmart and GSMK is that their customers are far more aware than they once were of the need for security and the risks from intrusion.
The tapping of phone conversations of the British royal family by tabloids was cited as a primary factor during my conversations. Likewise, the recent revelations of personal conversations of celebrities and the leaking of their photos seems to have motivated people who might otherwise not think about acquiring highly secure mobile devices.
But the demand for stronger voice encryption is only going to grow. SecuSmart, now part of BlackBerry, has created a version of their micro-SD card-based encryption that was previously available only for BlackBerry 10 devices for Samsung smartphones, as well. As was the case with the BlackBerry version, the Samsung secure system protects the whole device including voice.
The Samsung protection also goes beyond just phones. SecuSmart was also showing a Galaxy Tab with the SecuSmart chip that encrypts the entire tablet. That one is available now and sells for approximately $2,500, which is about the same price as the other devices from this company.
It’s a safe bet that other European vendors will be offering similar products for sale over the course of the next few months. There were several versions of voice encryption in the preannouncement stages being shown at CeBIT.
From the comments I heard from the companies, these products are being developed in direct response to revelations of spying by the U.S. National Security Agency and other government agencies. It’s worth noting that they’re all being offered for sale in the United States as well as in Europe.
One observer suggested following a presentation by Glen Greenwald, who published the Edward Snowden leaks, that by building security products in Europe any rules by the U.S. government that encryption must have a back door could be safely ignored. Whether or not that’s true, it’s pretty clear that if the U.S. government’s stance on security has done nothing else, it’s helping to build a strong data security industry—in Europe.