Researchers from China have uncovered a new way of spying on satellite phone calls. It includes rapid decryption of these calls, and it sometimes works in only a fraction of a single second.
The similar research was conducted and published in 2012 by German academics. This week, Chinese researchers expanded on it, and their report says that encryption that is most often used by the satellite phones can be cracked in no time. The attack is rapidly speeding up, which is a very concerning news.
Using satellite phones is very important and practical since they work in places where no other phones can. This includes the middle of the ocean, high altitudes, and desolate environments in general. Modern versions of these phones have been using encryption in order to prevent eavesdropping and spying on conversations.
German researchers have tried to recover an encryption key via a standard known-plaintext attack. Chinese researchers, however, tried another way, and their attempt was to reverse the encryption procedure. By doing this, they managed to deduce what the encryption key is from the output keystream.
And by using this attack on 3.3GHz satellite stream several thousand times, they managed to reduce the search space for the encryption key, which made it easier to find. In the end, the encryption got cracked in a fraction of a second.
This is proof enough that major security flaws are still present in GMR-2 cipher. Service providers must work on this to fix the issue, and stop this kind of attacks from working.
A comment from Inmarsat’s spokesperson said that they took action to fix the flaw back in 2012 when they first became aware of it. According to the statement from this Thursday, the phone issues are resolved, and the satellite phones are perfectly secure.
Johns Hopkins University’s cryptography teacher, Matthew Green, has commented on the German method in 2012. He stated back then that the security of satellite phones matters. It is pretty much the only form of communication in some areas, and they can’t be allowed something like this. They are also used in war zones, and just imagine how bad it would be if those conversations got spied on.
He has also commented on the new method proposed by the Chinese researchers and has agreed that it allows much faster decryption. It is of great concern when it comes to the practical perspective. However, from a scientific perspective, it is also a greatly valued advance.
In the end, his advice is that satellite phone encryption is not to be trusted. Not now, but also not in 2012, when the issue has first appeared.