co-authored by Dr. Stephen Bryen, CEO Ziklag Systems
Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland called her colleague in the Ukraine to discuss the upheaval in that country. Aside from choice profanity in her reference to the European Union, she also sounded like the worst kind of mandarin colonialist, dictating who should be selected to head a new Ukrainian government. And while the leak of her phone call recording on YouTube has triggered a plethora of negative comments from Europe and the Ukraine, the real matter that seems to have escaped notice is why her phone call ended up on public display.
You would think that a high State Department official would use special, secure communications that would be hard to intercept. But the truth is, that is not the case. In our fast moving world, where mobility and rapid response are the hallmarks of how modern organizations function, communications security is something that has gone out the window. It has been pushed out the window by antiquated ideas about security that still dominate thinking in the U.S. government.
It is an axiom that all telephone communications are monitored, not only by our own government, but probably by any state that has the money, the manpower and the will to do it.
There are three types of modern communications that dominate the global marketplace. There is the old "land line" system that conveys voice over public switched networks. There are mobile communications that use cellular networks and public switched networks to communicate. And there are internet phones, many of them generally free services that broadcast voice over the Internet and then either pump it directly into another computer, or alternatively transfer it to a public switched network which, in turn, may relay it to a cellular network. Virtually all modern communications today are digital in character, although some old analog cross-bar switching systems can be found in less developed countries or remote areas.
In today's world, landline to landline telephone calls are generally more secure than mobile networks, but only slightly so. Most foreign governments own their telephone systems or exchanges called PTTs, and one of the reasons they control the PTTs is for spying. In the U.S. the public networks are not government owned, but the U.S. government has not found it terribly challenging to use them as spying platforms. They have also been helped by the courts in getting the job done.
Mobile phones and internet calls are obviously more popular than landlines because they comport better with mobility. Government supplied secure phones have to be used only in secure places and they are monitored by NSA who supplies the phones to their government customers. In a sense they are partly, not fully secure, and are challenging to use in our go-go world.
Unfortunately, mobile phones are not secure, and neither is the Internet. It is an area of extreme exploitation by spy agencies worldwide because it is so easy to pick off important information. It is also a playground for hackers, investigators and malefactors who can cheaply and easily break into just about any mobile phone. And if you think Google Phone, or Skype or any other internet phone is safe, think again.
The U.S. government, well aware of the threat to its communications, has sat on its hands for over 25 years and done nothing to improve conditions. It is a prisoner of old thinking and bureaucratic confusion. If anything, that confusion is worse than ever. Despite the billions spent on stealing everyone else's information, hardly any money and even less initiative are available to fix today's problem.
It is no longer feasible to chain a public official to a desk in a secure room in a globalized world. People abroad do not live on American time zones. And Americans themselves no longer find it comfortable to rely on land line telephones. Despite the security risks, everyone is giving up wired phones and living in a world of mobile phones and tablets.
The U.S. Government must wise up and change how it thinks about security for its public officials -- and the Victoria Nuland YouTube experience should be a serious wake up call.
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