SRA app secures BlackBerry calls

Encrypted chip keeps calls from being intercepted

According to estimates by Research in Motion, people in government and industry are using more than 12 million BlackBerry smart phones. And about half of all the calls made on those phones involve sensitive or business confidential communications, said Pat Burke, a senior vice president with SRA.

If someone intercepts such communications, they could cause serious trouble, depending on just what they're able to learn, Burke said. Especially if a “significant national event" — an attack or major natural disaster, for example — is going on, interception of cell phone calls by enemy ears could be a national security threat, he said. So there’s been a tremendous demand from the BlackBerry community for secure voice communication.

It’s not that there haven’t been secure cell phones, he said. There have been some, but they were big. Physically big. So big that "observers knew what you were doing when you were talking on one of them,” Burke said. “It ended up defeating the purpose.”

SRA’s new secure voice application runs on ordinary BlackBerry smart phones. Called One Vault Voice, the app works with three other components: KoolSpan’s TrustChip hardened encryption device, a relay server and the TrustCenter management platform, which manages the TrustChip.

The TrustChip encryption ensures that no keys are exchanged over the air, Burke said. “It’s all on the chip.”

Using 3G networks, One Vault Voice complies with FIPS 140-2 Level 1 and 256 AES platform encryption standards.

To activate the app, users choose a contact in their address book, select an option labeled “place secure call,” and press send. One Vault Voice then authenticates the user identities and maintains a secure connection from the beginning of the call through to the end.

Call quality is better than on a regular cell phone, Burke said.

One advantage to the One Vault Voice app is that it only works when you request a call, so it saves battery power, said Mark Muller, SRA’s director of operations and product manager for One Vault Voice.

The secure voice line is connected peer-to-peer over a relay server, Muller said. Each data packet is encrypted, and the encryption keys are never exposed.

The TrustChip is tamper proof, he said. If someone were to remove the chip or tamper with it, it would automatically self-destruct, Muller said. Or if the phone was stolen or lost, a call to the TrustCenter would immediately disable it.

Users can also create trust groups, which are groups of users on the same committee or project.

The trip through the relay server to the BlackBerry causes a two-second delay, Muller said. “It looks a little like a 1970s kung fu movie, with the person’s mouth not jibing with the words coming out of the machine,” he said. But users usually adapt pretty easily to the delay, he said.

Muller then demonstrated what he called “the certified latency test.” He called his friend Mike in Chicago, using a BlackBerry Bold 9700 equipped with One Vault Voice. The app is also compatible with the BlackBerry Curve 8900 and BlackBerry Bold 9000.

“Marco,” he said.

About two seconds later came the answer from Mike: “Polo.”

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.

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