GCN LAB REVIEWS
When calls must be private, app creates a cellular cone of silence
- By John Breeden II
- Aug 31, 2011
Just because you’re paranoid, that doesn’t mean they’re not after you. For the most part, cell phone voice traffic is pretty secure. But that does not mean that someone who wants to intercept your call can't still do it. And it does not mean that dedicated phone hackers might not randomly intercept your next voice call, which if you work for the government might be a problem.
If you are a fed with a top-secret clearance, then you probably have a dedicated piece of hardware to keep your calls secret. But that’s a pretty small group. What if you are the chief financial officer of the Agriculture Department and need to talk with someone about which programs are getting cut in the new budget cycle, or a human resources director for the Energy Department who needs to chat about employee benefits, or a congressional aide who has to discuss some back-channel deal? Just because a conversation isn’t top-secret doesn’t mean it’s not sensitive in nature. Not being secret does not mean it should be open to the public.
The Cellcrypt application, which is really a gateway to the Cellcrypt service, can be a way for people without dedicated hardware to place secure calls without fear of interception. In a sense, it can turn anyone into a poor-man’s James Bond. Not that the application is cheap. It’s just more economical than dedicated cell-phone hardware.
Pros: Can make voice calls snoop-proof, FIPS-140-2 validated, easy to use.
Cons: Need the app installed on both phones to work, adds latency into conversation.
Ease of use: A
Government Price: $1,483 per user per year
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We tested the Cellcrypt service on two BlackBerry Bold smart phones. However, the application and the service works with iPhones, Androids and Nokia-based smart phones. So it pretty much covers the entire market.
Once installed, your phone book list will have two options for dialing out. The first will place a normal call. The second option will place a secure call. There are a couple of catches in terms of making a secure call. The biggest one is that the person you are calling also needs to have the application installed on his or her phone. Otherwise, it’s kind of like having a single fax machine. So to make the most of Cellcrypt, you need to purchase the application for everyone within your group whom you might need to chat with securely.
When you initiate a secure call using the Cellcrypt application, the software opens up a data channel back to the Cellcrypt servers. The voice channel remains unused. So on the one hand you are not using up your minutes, but your call will count against your data plan if you have one that counts kilobytes. The data channel, which is being used for voice data, is then encrypted. Cellcrypt has been validated up to FIPS 140-2.
No encryption noise
In terms of call quality, we did not notice any difference between a normal call on the voice channel and an encrypted call using data packets. We did however notice a good deal of latency, though this was much more noticeable when both testers were sitting in the same room. One person would say something, there would be about a second or two pause, and then the second tester would hear that same thing on their phone. This did not happen all the time, but did seem susceptible to network congestion. Never once did the quality of the call suffer, but at peak hours it was a bit like talking on an international call from 10 years ago, where you could speak over someone accidentally because of the odd pauses in the conversation. Late at night this almost never happened. But at peak hours, the latency was almost always noticeable.
So the back-end technology works pretty well. It’s obviously optimized for voice quality at the expense of latency, but even then, so long as the network is not too cluttered, it works surprisingly well. And even at the worst latency, it was simply a matter of giving the person on the other end an extra second or two before we starting to talk again. I suppose we could go back to saying "Roger" and "over and out" or something, like we were World War II aviators, but that’s hardly necessary.Simple to use
From a user’s point of view, nothing could be simpler. You push one button on your screen to make a normal voice call and a different button to make a secure call. It would be nice if you could switch over to a secure call in the middle of a conversation. You know, get in touch with your contact and then drop the cone of silence, Maxwell Smart style. But you need to initiate secure calls from the beginning. Once you start the call, it will either be one type or the other. The Cellcrypt service does a nice job of handing over the call from the normal data network to a wireless connection, if your phone should switch over in the middle of a call due to a change in location. However, going the other way causes the call to drop most of the time, so be wary of network handoffs.
The Cellcrypt is not cheap, and you need to buy access to the service again every year. For a single year license, it will cost you $1,483 per user on a government contract, and remember that you need at least two users within your agency (or know some people who also have it) for it to work. Multiyear deals can bring the costs down over time.
Security is always going to be a major concern in government circles, whether you are talking about secret or simply sensitive issues. The Cellcrypt service is a way for the non-spies among us to upgrade to a top-secret level of security, and to do so with existing off-the-shelf hardware.