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.
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.