Friday, December 19, 2014


Tangled Web

Marie Colvin's Death Raises Concerns About Use Of Satellite Phones

Marie Colvin, an American working for Britain's "Sunday Times," and French photographer Remi Ochlik
Marie Colvin, an American working for Britain's "Sunday Times," and French photographer Remi Ochlik
The Electronic Frontier Foundation has highlighted the possible risks for journalists using satellite phones after speculation that their signals might have allowed the Syrian army to target journalists Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik, who were killed this week in Homs. 
 
EFF shows the inherent dangers of using satellite phones:
 
There are a few different ways by which satellite phones can be tracked.  The first—and easiest for a government actor—would be to simply ask or pressure a company to hand over user data.  This is not beyond the realm of possibility (readers might recall an incident in which Yahoo handed over information about a Chinese dissident to his government, resulting in a ten year prison term), but is just one of several methods.
 
Satellite phones can also be tracked by technical means and there is ample technology already on the market for doing so.  For example, this portable Thuraya monitoring system by Polish company TS2, which also counts several US government agencies as clients; these systems for monitoring Thuraya and Iridium phones, created by Singaporean company Toplink Pacific; or this satellite phone tracking technology from UK based Delma MMS.
 
Authorities can find the position of a satellite phone using manual triangulation, but in order to track a phone in this manner, the individual would need to be relatively close by. Nowadays, however, most satellite phones utilize GPS, making them even easier to track using products widely available on the market such as those mentioned above.  Some of these products allow not only for GPS tracking, but also for interception of voice and text communications and other information.
 
Jacob Applebaum, a computer security researcher and hacker, also told the EFF via e-mail that "Satellite phone systems and satellite networks are unsafe to use if location privacy or privacy for the content of communications is desired. "
 
Writing at SaferMobile, an anonymous contributor from the telecommunications industry agrees that they are as vulnerable -- if not more sometimes -- as mobile phones:

Satellite communications, on the other hand, are somehow perceived to be more secure – there are satellites involved, complicated, expensive equipment, and there are not that many sat phones in operation globally.
 
The reality is that satellite telephone systems are as vulnerable and in some cases more vulnerable to attack than mobile phone systems.
 
Even though satellite phones use encryption, as SaferMobile points out this has been successfully cracked recently by researchers in Germany.
 
It's a tricky one for journalists and aid workers. As correspondents in the field know only too well, the satphone is a lifeline in far-flung locations  -- more so when the authorities might have blocked all other channels of communications. 
 
One possible solution might be better encryption, so journalists' could remain better hidden. The problem with better encryption is that it can lull people into a false sense of security and can always be broken. Another option might be less encryption, not more. Journalists could broadcast their location to the world, for example, by using a very public real-time map for all to see -- that layer of transparency might prevent armies from targeting journalists with impunity.
 
In a discussion on the liberationtech list, Stefan Geens, who writes about digital technology, explored this possibility: 
 
So perhaps one (counterintuitive) place for legal innovation might be to make journalists' communications more visible and distinct, akin to hospitals. Uplink signals from journalist satphones could carry a specific signature that interceptors cannot fail to notice. Reports could be transmitted unencrypted -- so that they are verifiably civilian in nature. By transmitting GPS coordinates in the open, they would tell anyone who is listening where civilian journalists are at work, and where an attack would be illegitimate.
 
It's a very interesting idea. The broader problem, though, is that in places like Syria the government more than likely just doesn't care. If they aren't targeting journalists directly, they certainly have no interest in ensuring their safety. 

For now, the reality is that satellite phones carry a risk. SaferMobile advises people to try not to use them in insecure environments and if they must to keep conversations short.

Despite the risks, though, tenacious journalists like Colvin and Ochlik who are already putting themselves in mortal danger, or humanitarian workers desperately trying to save lives in crisis zones, would still probably choose to make the call. 

Tags: satellite phones

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Frank
February 25, 2012 05:40
Colvin's pieces from Homs had a propagandistic tilt to them.

This was the same rationale the NATO forces used to bomb a Serb TV station in Belgrade.

Journos who go against the government in a country where there's a civil war can be reasonably expected to take extra risk when reporting behind the scene of the anti-government opposition, in a way that slants for that side.

Regardless which side is at war, people die. A journo's life isn't greater than others. These points aren't made to mock her death. Rather, they're to add balance to what has been typically spun.
In Response

by: Alex from: Earth
February 27, 2012 17:28
A journo? Is that what you call the people who risk their lives for relatively modest sallaries just to bring you the information you so easily take for granted from the comfort of your sofa? Well, I guess there are more important people in this world rather then the so-called "journos". Why the disclaimer that you do not mock her death, when you did so in the sentance before your disclaimer? Pathetic!
In Response

by: Frank
February 27, 2012 18:10
She appeared agenda driven in a propagandistic way, somewhat akin to Politkovskaya.

Meantime, there're Syrians who're against the anti-government forces in Syria. Where're the high profile Western mass media journos who cover their angle in sympathetic light?

Such a position is geopolitically incorrect.

FYI, my sofa is none of your business.
In Response

by: eli from: Frank's sofa
February 28, 2012 12:12
Frank/Slava/Averko, are those Assad supporters being shelled, perhaps? Can you actually cite something she reported that's "propagandistic"? We know you are pro-Kremlin and all that, but can you back up anything you say? I mean, with more than "Such a position is geopolitically incorrect," whatever that means. The propagandist is you.

by: gi joe from: heaven
February 26, 2012 04:05
6.5 rule very effecive

by: james r. from: usa, new castle pa.
February 28, 2012 01:48
Article failed to mention Marie Colvin's second profession that of Mossod Agent. Gathering intel on the ground,always dangerous!

About This Blog



Written by Luke Allnutt, Tangled Web focuses on the smart ways people in closed societies are using social media, mobile phones, and the Internet to circumvent their governments and the efforts of less-than-democratic governments to control the web. 
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