Risk
2/3/2012
01:57 PM
Connect Directly
RSS
E-Mail
50%
50%

Don't Trust Satellite Encryption, Say German Researchers

Researchers have cracked two common voice encryption protocols, enabling low-tech interceptions of satellite calls.

Two German researchers announced Thursday that they've broken two encryption protocols that are widely used to secure satellite voice communications.

Benedikt Driessen and Ralf Hund, both from Ruhr University Bochum, Thursday gave a talk at the university, detailing how they were able to reverse-engineer and break the GMR-1 and GMR-2 voice ciphers used to secure numerous satellite networks. Their research means that with the correct computer software and a suitable programmable radio that can receive satellite frequencies, calls made using those two voice ciphers could be intercepted.

The researchers said the required hardware could be purchased for about $2,000, though it would take about 30 minutes to decrypt calls, reported The Telegraph. A system to intercept and decode the calls in real time, however, would require a greater investment.

[ Cyber attacks are becoming an increasing national security threat. Read more at Cyber Attacks Becoming Top Terror Threat, FBI Says]

The researchers plan to detail their findings more fully in a forthcoming report, "Don't Trust Satellite Phones." According to their research abstract, however, one of their major findings was that "the stream ciphers of the two existing satellite phone systems are considerably weaker than what is state of the art in symmetric cryptography."

For example, they found that GMR-1 was simply a variation on the GSM A5/2 algorithm--already considered weak a decade ago--which made it especially easy to break. Meanwhile, while GMR-2 is based on an entirely new type of voice cipher, it's still relatively weak by today's encryption standards.

"The ciphers that have been compromised are used by many geostationary satellite networks that are based on the principle of one single satellite covering a huge geographic area, often the size of an entire continent," said Bjoern Rupp, CEO of encrypted satellite phone (satphone) vendor GSMK Cryptophone, via email. "So by using the insight from this research, it is easily possible to listen to a huge number of confidential satellite calls from your continent with only modest technical effort."

The German researchers said that they believe theirs is the first study of satphone security. "Even though a niche market compared to the G2 and G3 mobile systems, there are several hundred thousand satphone subscribers worldwide," they said. "Given the sensitive nature of some of their application domains (e.g., natural disaster areas or military campaigns), security plays a particularly important role for satphones."

Many governments and armed forces, however, use their own proprietary voice ciphers to secure their satellite communications. "However, they often still rely on satellite phones to communicate with locals, back to HQ or people at home," said Cryptophone's Rupp. "With this announcement, it has been shown that the satellite handsets' built-in encryption on these calls is no longer secure, which could pose a considerable threat to the armed forces and civilians alike."

The cracked voice ciphers are used by ACes, ICO Global Communications, SkyTerra, Terrestar, and Thuraya, as well as by Inmarsat for its ISatPhone Pro handheld satellite voice service.

The right forensic tools in the right hands are just a start. The new Digital Detectives issue of Dark Reading shows you how to better apply the lessons they teach. (Free registration required.)

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Cartoon
Current Issue
Dark Reading, September 16, 2014
Malicious software is morphing to be more targeted, stealthy, and destructive. Are you prepared to stop it?
Flash Poll
Video
Slideshows
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
CVE-2006-1318
Published: 2014-09-19
Microsoft Office 2003 SP1 and SP2, Office XP SP3, Office 2000 SP3, Office 2004 for Mac, and Office X for Mac do not properly parse record lengths, which allows remote attackers to execute arbitrary code via a malformed control in an Office document, aka "Microsoft Office Control Vulnerability."

CVE-2012-2588
Published: 2014-09-19
Multiple cross-site scripting (XSS) vulnerabilities in MailEnable Enterprise 6.5 allow remote attackers to inject arbitrary web script or HTML via the (1) From, (2) To, or (3) Subject header or (4) body in an SMTP e-mail message.

CVE-2012-6659
Published: 2014-09-19
Cross-site scripting (XSS) vulnerability in the admin interface in Phorum before 5.2.19 allows remote attackers to inject arbitrary web script or HTML via a crafted URL.

CVE-2014-1391
Published: 2014-09-19
QT Media Foundation in Apple OS X before 10.9.5 allows remote attackers to execute arbitrary code or cause a denial of service (memory corruption and application crash) via a crafted movie file with RLE encoding.

CVE-2014-3614
Published: 2014-09-19
Unspecified vulnerability in PowerDNS Recursor (aka pdns_recursor) 3.6.x before 3.6.1 allows remote attackers to cause a denial of service (crash) via an unknown sequence of malformed packets.

Best of the Web
Dark Reading Radio