Saturday, October 18, 2008


Call for encrypted iPhone

by Larry Geller

Yup, the NSA has been listening in on all kinds of conversations—soldiers phoning wives or girlfriends, for example—not just terrorists planning evil.

One of the things that David Murfee Faulk brought up was the fact that not only were they eavesdropping on a lot of these conversations, some of which were very intimate, but they would have sort of locker room chats about what they were hearing, and they would post—or they would notify their co-workers that you should listen to this, what they call “cut,” their conversations. You should listen to this conversation or that conversation. They’d laugh about it. And, you know, I don’t really think that’s what the soldiers over there that are fighting really appreciate, the fact that you have Americans back in the state of Georgia laughing over their intimate conversations. [Democracy Now, James Bamford: “The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America”, 10/14/2008]

It turns out that the intercepts installed illegally at AT&T and at other phone companies actually access all conversations, not just the ones to Osama Bin Laden and his cronies. All traffic is diverted through the wiretapping equipment.

Terrorists no doubt have figured out that with American wiretapping so widespread, they shouldn’t just talk about their next escapade on their Motorola cellphones. For sure, Big Brother is listening in. Evidoers are either speaking in code or are already using encrypted forms of communication.

It’s probably true that there are terrorists as stupid as the bank robber who wrote a demand note on the back of a deposit slip with his name and account number on it.

In the movies, somehow, the robbers plot more carefully and intricately. They’re not stupid, they tend to be intelligent fiends. After all, we have to sit there for the two hours eating popcorn and drinking expensive soda, so it better be good.

Real-world terrorists encrypt. NSA can’t easily figure out what they are communicating. They may even employ steganography, hiding their messages someplace where no one would think to look.

What about the rest of us? I certainly don’t want anyone in Georgia drooling over my intimate conversations. But my telephone won’t encrypt.

It’s time for some entrepreneur to make use of the power of microchips to produce a telephone that encrypts normal conversations. If you speak with someone who has an ordinary, old-fashioned, phone, it would work normally. If it detects another encryption chip at the far end, though, it should use pre-agreed keys to make sure that the conversation would not end up in your permanent record, as my second grade teacher used to threaten.

One possibility seems to be to make use of the programmability of either the iPhone or perhaps Google’s new Android phone. A suitable add-in might be coded to provide this encryption functionality. It would be a start. Of course, we’ll need standards, but the first one on the scene with a workable device might be able to dictate the standards.

The military probably wouldn’t let soldiers use encryption, so the pillow talk will continue to titillate eavesdroppers (though now that the word is out, you’d think they would avoid providing NSA employees with free entertainment). The rest of us could use one, though.

Even easier is to start encrypting our email in a similar way, using either currently available software or something new and easier to install. It should be as easy to use as a spam filter.

So when you meet your friend over some beers, you arrange a key, and henceforth your emails to and from that friend are protected. Businesses can routinely set up keys with vendors and customers. You can give a key to your bank teller so that when you call the bank, your private information won’t end up on record at the spy agency. Same for your doctor, your girlfriend (or mistress), even your piano teacher. That’s right, everyone encrypt!

One day, if these devices and software become easily available, we may be free from Big Brother wiretapping for real.

Update: I cross-posted this article on Dailykos, and one commenter provide a link to Zfone, encryption software that apparently does the trick for VOIP phone users (those who use phone service connected through their Internet modem). It even works with a popular PBX program and can work with conferencing.


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