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Don't Touch that Dial: Considerations When Using Satphones in Conflict Zones

Satellite phones can be used in areas where infrastructure doesn’t support traditional cell phone networks, like conflict zones or remote areas, but they also expose their users to risk of being targeted by hostile forces or governments.

Journalism legend Marie Colvin and reporter Rémi Ochlik were killed by Syrian shelling last month while reporting from a makeshift press center in the embattled neighborhood of Homs. Two other journalists were wounded. Syrian forces targeted the press center afterpinpointing its location by triangulating signals from satphones being used by the journalists, according to media reports.

Three weeks after Colvin’s death,Small World News, an Oregon-based nonprofit that provides media training for conflict areas, produced a training guide for safe use of satellite phones in conflict areas. The43-page guide explains how satphones work, risks of use, and precautions users can take. It was produced “with a specific slant toward phone use by activists and citizen journalists inside Syria,” but future editions will address other use situations and locations, according to the Small World News Web site. Private security companies and disaster response agencies rely on the technology as well.

“This guide will assist you to maintain a low profile and improve your chances to evade detection and monitoring from the authorities,” says Small World News.

The first risk noted by the guide is confiscation. In the event a satphone is confiscated, a person’s call log, phone book, and sent folder become a valuable cache of information. It allows the confiscator to track a person’s phone activity without having access to actual transmissions. Deleting this information regularly is not a complete fail-safe, the guide notes, but it would make access harder for someone trying to extract that data from the phone. “It may be suspicious to have an empty call log, but [it] will have less impact on your colleagues,” the guide states.

Making calls on a satphone requires a clear view of the sky. Satphone users can lessen the chance of having a phone confiscated by disguising their use. Using a headset with a satphone will make it look like a person is using the local cellular network instead of a satellite call, the guide states. A Bluetooth headset lets a person use a phone while keeping it hidden in an open bag or behind bushes.

Considering the types of areas satphones are generally deployed and their use in disaster and military operations, security is important for transmission. In a paper titled,Don’t Trust SatPhones, researchers from the Horst-Goertz Institute for IT Security found that encryption on satphone communication is “considerably weaker than what is state-of-the- art in symmetric cryptography.” The researchers were able to crack the phones’ algorithms using free firmware.

Small World News recommends keeping transmissions as short as possible --under three minutes. Radio transmission from satphones can be easily triangulated using cheap and often homemade tools. Countries with advanced technical security are likely to have devices that can detect the signals and less developed states, and even non-state actors, may be able to develop the capacity. Many satphones rely on encryption, but governments may be able to defeat the encryption. Thuraya encryption, for example, has been broken. Because of this, Small World News says users should never share personal, life threatening, or critical information via satellite – and if necessary, speak in code.

E-mails and text messages may be faster and more convenient than phone calls, but it’s more likely that these messages will be intercepted. When a text message is sent from a satphone there is no secure encryption. “Do not transmit sensitive information via SMS unless you are willing to have it read by the authorities. If the SMS is intercepted, it is likely to be recorded and the encryption broken at a later date, if not immediately,” the guide states. Locating a phone's GPS location is less likely with texting than voice calls though because of the short duration of the transmission.

The latter parts of the guide provide instructions on how to clear information on satphones and the pros and cons of different brands.

Click below to download the free guide.Guide_SatPhone_English.pdf

photo byjurvetson/flickr