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.