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Satellite Phones vs. VoIP: Which Solution is Best for Sensitive Calls?

 

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In war-torn Syria, rebels fighting against Bashar al-Assad’s forces have utilized both VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) calling and satellite phones to communicate between distant geographic areas. However, when lives are at stake, finding the most secure solution is crucial. While both types of calling methods have their advantages and disadvantages, satellite phone rentals or purchases typically deliver the best security options.

How Satellite Phones Work

Instead of connecting to a cellular tower, a satellite phone transmits a signal to an orbiting satellite, which then transfers the signal to a gateway on the ground. The gateway relays the call to the public telephone system to connect with the caller on the ground.

If the caller is also using a satellite phone, then the connection type depends on the phones’ proximity to one another. Phones from close-by callers would transmit calls over the satellite connection without utilizing the gateway. Alternatively, phones used by distant callers would relay signals from the first phone to a satellite, then through a gateway to the public telephone service, and then through a second gateway to another satellite that would relay the signal to the second phone.

How VoIP Works

VoIP calls convert voice signals to digital signals that can be sent over the Internet. VoIP connections can work between traditional phones using an analog telephone adapter (ATA) that converts analog voice signals to digital signals. VoIP calls can also take place between IP phones, which connect to a router via Ethernet, between computers or mobile devices, or between combinations of these devices. Satellite broadband connections can support VoIP calling, but reception for satellite phones is better outdoors.

Security Benefits and Drawbacks for Satellite Phones

Satellite phone signals bypass local telecom systems, making them more secure than landlines for making calls. In fact, in some countries, satellite phones are banned because they make wiretapping and censorship impossible. Countries like North Korea and Myanmar ban the use of satellite phones, while countries like India require users to obtain special permission before they are allowed to own them.

These bans, however, don’t mean that satellite phone communication is completely secure. In early 2012, two German academics from Ruhr University Bochum used equipment that could be purchased for as little as $2,000 to crack two satellite phone encryption standards, GMR-1 and GMR-2, using a simple firmware update. The International Secure Systems Lab reported that standards for encrypting satellite phones are significantly weaker than standards for symmetric cryptography. Until the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) develops better security standards for satellite calls, no one should assume that all satellite calling prevents government eavesdropping.

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Security Advantages and Disadvantages of VoIP

VoIP calls are encrypted as they pass between end points, and encryption tends to make the calls quite secure. Last year, the Ethiopian government banned all VoIP communications with a punishment of 15 years in prison for people who failed to comply.

However, although VoIP calls are encrypted, governments can transmit malware through VoIP calling programs. Then, the malware can be installed on the recipient’s computer. One VoIP-transmitted Trojan horse called Blackshades Remote Controller can record keystrokes and take screenshots from an infected computer. Blackshades can also transmit itself to users within the infected computer’s contacts folder.

Making Safe Calls

A satellite phone call may be safer than VoIP if you observe the following precautions:

  • Delete call logs, sent texts and sent e-mails.
  • Do not keep phone numbers in your contacts folder.
  • Disguise your satellite phone’s location while keeping it oriented toward a satellite. Place it in a bag and pair it with a headset. If you pair it with a Bluetooth headset, keep security risks in mind.
  • Speak in code. Never speak plainly over a satellite phone connection. Also, code your SMS and e-mail messages. When sending e-mail, utilize an HTTPS connection at all times.
  • Keep the SIM card separate. Remove the SIM card from your phone after each use. If your phone is in danger of being confiscated, then destroy the SIM card before the authorities find it.

About the Author: Hobert Pruitt works for a leading telecommunications company. You can follow him on Google Plus here.

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About Kimberly

Kimberly Vetrano resides in the suburbs of New York City with her family, five cats, dog, a tank full of fish and snails. She is also a freelance writer and photographer.

Comments

  1. cassandra (rab pom) says:

    This is really interesting. I had no idea what the difference between these two phones actually were and honestly had never even heard of VoIP It seems like both require many precautions for security.

  2. I have to admit that I’ve never given this topic much thought. I found this post really interesting–I learned a lot. Thanks. Keep it up!

  3. I personally think that no cell phone is secure to use. With a cell phone you can be located and your calls tracked and other things too. Alot of this technology is way beyond my knowledge

  4. I guess I am lucky to have never had to think about things like this considering I live in the US and have never had any reason to need my calls/texts untraceable or no record of them. Very interesting post though.

  5. saminder gumer says:

    i never thought about this, but this seem like some spy stuff. i have voip right now.

  6. Donna George says:

    Here’s a subject I’ve never thought of before. I guess I live such a boring life :)