We’ve seen those corny, binge-watchable spy action series where upon uncovering a plot, the agent must alert White House post haste to thwart an imminent attack on the nation. Cue to the horse voice of TV drama “24“ star Kiefer Sutherland: “Get me a secure line to the president.”
But what exactly does that mean?
“I get tons of those movie style questions and I’ll say they’re often not accurate portrayals,” said Ben Caudill, founder & CEO of Rhino Security Labs, a security advisory firm based in Seattle. “But basically, secure phones are meant to guard the caller against being phone tapped”
This is achieved through the encryption technology working in tandem at both ends of a call. Before dialer’s phone sends its signals down the line, encryption jumbles them to render-them utterly incomprehensible should somebody physically tap the wires (cellphone interceptor) of a landline phone or remotely capture cell phone radio waves.
“Even if I managed to get hold of the signals or if I physically tapped your home phone cable, I would not be able to hear the conversation if it is encrypted & neither would a phone provider or a government intelligence agency,” said Caudill.
But crucially, the legitimate recipient phone already has the key needed to unlock all that scrambled nonsense & reassemble it into comprehensible sound packages or text messages. All of this happens automatically & seamlessly, therefore the call isn’t interrupted or jittery. There are 2 ways to achieve this end-to-end encryption through software or through hardware.
As a software, this enigma esque technology is really pretty commonplace lately. The Facebook-owned application WhatsApp uses it & do many-other smartphone messaging apps like Signal. Does this mean your iPhone is really a secure phone? Well, that’s probably pushing things, Caudill said. Religiously using secure apps to send & receive calls & texts won’t be as secure as you think.
“If you’ve malware on your phone, for instance, then the hackers could be able to listen in to your calls,” Caudill said. “So, there is a question of how rigorously secure encryption through smartphone software are often but it’s definitely better than simply using regular cell signals to make calls.”
That’s why the type of calls made by the likes of “24” Jack Bauer to the president are much more likely to use hardware encryption technology, reasoned Caudill. “The president features a physical phone that’s not an off the shelf sort of device. It’s decryption stuff built right into the hardware instead of software and it can ask other similarly built phones.”
There you’ve got it, Hollywood presidential phrase, “Get me a secure line,” really is a thing.