Encryption device offers phone privacy

Low cost phone device promises encryption privacy for the masses

Technology that experts believe could eradicate eavesdropping on telephone communications entirely will be unveiled at a London conference on high-tech surveillance Friday.

California-based Starium will take the wraps off its much anticipated low-cost phone encryption device at the Surveillance by Design Forum, organised by London civil liberty group Privacy International. Starium cofounder Eric Blossom will be in London to show off the technology.

The phone device, as yet unnamed, will plug into a land-line phone and offer encrypted voice communications at the touch of a button. The device will encode voice communications with a 168-bit triple DES (Data Encryption Exchange) algorithm and use a 2,048-bit Diffie-Hellman key exchange technique. This cryptographic protocol is sufficiently robust to leave even the most powerful government computers stumped.

The phone unit was originally also expected to cost under $100 (£71), but will at first, however, be priced at $600 (£426). STU III devices capable of similar feats created by the NSA currently cost around $3,000. About the size of a Palm handheld computer, the phone unit is expected to include a 75MHz MIPS processor, an infrared interface, and a smart card port. It is expected to launch commercially in the next few weeks. Starium is also expected to port its technology to the mobile phone sector in coming months.

Simon Davies, head of Privacy International, says the low-cost device will allow ordinary citizens to combat government snooping. "Once this is on the market, the government can kiss goodbye to phone tapping. It will be almost impossible to crack this sort of technology."

The UK and US government routinely tap phone conversations as part of criminal investigations but Davies claims that this activity has increased in recent years to reached epidemic eavesdropping proportions. "Under this government, phone tapping has increased enormously," says Davies. "It is reprehensible in a democracy."

Starium has a distinguished board of directors, featuring Robert Kohn, former general council of Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) and Whitfield Diffie, coinventor of public key cryptography.

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