For heads of state, a iPhone or Blackberry can be a trap

Oct 24, 2013 by Katia Dolmadjian
The new iPhone 5S is displayed during an Apple product announcement at the Apple campus on September 10, 2013 in Cupertino, California

While heads of state have encrypted mobiles and other secure lines for work, many can't resist using regular smartphones for everyday life—making them susceptible to espionage.

On Wednesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called US President Obama demanding answers after reports Washington may have hacked her cell.

The White House, refused to say whether Washington's agents had intercepted her communications in the past, and Obama was forced to promise they would not do so in the future.

Amid growing outrage in Europe, the scandal spotlights how high-ranking officials use technology and, possibly, how reaching for a personal iPhone or Blackberry can expose their Achilles' heel.

The Der Tagesspiegel daily, citing anonymous government sources, said Merkel's allegedly tapped wasn't the encrypted one she uses in her official role as chancellor.

Rather, it claimed, it was the one she has as head of the country's CDU political party.

Some German reports, however, claimed the gadget was the leader's "official" mobile, which is supposed to be highly secure.

Several months ago, Germany's government stocked up on Blackberry Z10 models—priced at 2,500 euros each ($3,450 each)—equipped with special mechanisms.

In France, high-ranking officials have encrypted Teorem cell phones exclusively built for the state by defense contractor Thales and which are believed to cost some 3,300 euros a piece.

Approved by the ANSSI national security agency, they even allow the secure transfer of material deemed "top secret."

Some officials also have access to a highly secure intranet and an inter-ministerial landline phone and fax network.

However, these systems are often seen as restrictive and slow by their users.

On a Teorem phone, for example, it takes up to 30 seconds to place a call due to security codes—and that can frustrate officials in an era of increasingly fast communications.

Hands off Gmail and Google

In an August 19 memo—after leaks by former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden starting revealing the extent of American spying in Europe—the French prime minister's office reminded ministries about the importance of securing data.

Among other things, the memo specified that "the use of unapproved commercial smartphones must exclude the communication of sensitive information."

Furthermore, it said, all , even that which is non-classified in nature, must be sent from terminals equipped with security systems approved by ANSSI.

People who own encrypted cell phones, be they politicians, company heads, lawyers or even journalists, "have at least one iPhone or Blackberry" on top of it, Robert Avril, founder of the firm Cryptofrance, told AFP.

The firm launched its first encrypted phones in 2008.

Despite all the training sessions these individuals receive, once back home such individuals tell themselves that hacking only happens to others, he said.

"We keep telling our clients not to have work-related conversations or send emails from their regular smartphones."

Politicians are particularly tough to convince, said Herve Schauer of CLUSIF, a French non-profit that brings together information security professionals.

"They have a really hard time understanding that they have to use encrypted phones, they're unaware of the risks," he said.

"They have several phones and are accustomed to using programs like Google or Gmail."

According to several cybercrime experts, former French president Nicolas Sarkozy was particularly reluctant to using his Teorem and his successor Francois Hollande is said to have held onto his personal smartphone once he took the reins.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Barack Obama won his battle with the Secret Service to hang on to his Blackberry within days of taking office, despite fears it was vulnerable to being hacked, and would give away his whereabouts.

Some also worried anything he writes could eventually be fodder for congressional investigations.

The extra bulky device is often seen on Obama's belt and he is sometimes pictured scrolling through his messages as he travels in his limousine.

The president often privately talks of how frustrated he is about the White House "bubble," which makes it very difficult to communicate with normal people or get unfiltered information from the outside world. Aides say his Blackberry is a way to escape that confinement.

The White House says the president's personal email address is strictly limited to a small list of senior officials and personal friends, but will not detail the encryption devices that are used to secure his communications.

However, emails the sends are believed to be subject to the post-Watergate Presidential Records Act of 1978, which requires that a record be kept of White House communications.

Explore further: 'NSA eavesdropped on 35 world leaders'

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

'NSA eavesdropped on 35 world leaders'

Oct 24, 2013

US spies eavesdropped on the phone conversations of 35 world leaders after White House, Pentagon and State Department officials gave them the numbers, The Guardian reported Thursday.

Mexican diplomat says Obama promises NSA probe (Update)

Oct 22, 2013

President Barack Obama has promised an investigation into spying the U.S. reportedly did on Mexico's presidential email system, Mexico's top diplomat told reporters Tuesday. The White House said Mexico's ...

New Blackberry 10 gets security nod

Nov 08, 2012

Blackberry maker Research in Motion announced Thursday that its newest smartphone platform, Blackberry 10, has been certified as secure for use by US government agencies.

Obama met IT, telecoms chiefs on surveillance (Update)

Aug 09, 2013

President Barack Obama met at the White House with leaders of IT and telecoms giants, including Apple, Google and AT&T, to discuss controversial electronic surveillance programs, Politico reported Friday.

Brazil announces secure email to counter US spying

Oct 14, 2013

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff announced Sunday that her government was creating a secure email system to try and shield official communications from spying by the United States and other countries.

Report: NSA cracked most online encryption

Sep 05, 2013

The National Security Agency, working with the British government, has secretly been unraveling encryption technology that billions of Internet users rely upon to keep their electronic messages and confidential ...

Recommended for you

Kickstarter suspends privacy router campaign

15 hours ago

Kickstarter has suspended an anonymizing router from its crowdfunding site. By Sunday, the page for "anonabox: A Tor hardware router" carried an extra word "(Suspended)" in parentheses with a banner below ...

Facebook unfriends federal drug agency

Oct 17, 2014

(AP)—Facebook wants assurances from the Drug Enforcement Administration that it's not operating any more fake profile pages as part of ongoing investigations.

User comments : 5

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

freethinking
1 / 5 (10) Oct 24, 2013
Three questions,
1. how does Obama manage to create software to spy so effectively on America's (former) friends?
2. How does Obama screw up so bad on the Obamacare website?
3. Why isn't there more critizism of Obamacare website on Physorg, because if it was rolled out by Bush, almost every second article would be bashing Bush for such a failed release of software?
24volts
1 / 5 (6) Oct 24, 2013
Obama didn't actually create any of it any more than Bush could have. Law organizations have been doing it for years regardless of who was president at the time. Blame the people that wrote the software for the website and the people that rushed it in before it was ready.
I don't personally like Obama and his version of politics but I really don't see how people always blame the current president for crap he doesn't really have any control over. Congress and the Senate created that fiasco and they should take most of the blame for it.
alfie_null
not rated yet Oct 25, 2013
3. Why isn't there more critizism of Obamacare website on Physorg

Why don't you write something up. Make it news-worthy, science/technology related. Get it published. on some site physorg watches. I'd note though, if your postings are a reflection of your acuity, your broad grasp of issues, your depth of understanding, and perhaps most of all your ability to communicate, you'll find it a challenge.
VendicarE
not rated yet Oct 25, 2013
What do these leaders think the black ops departments of these phone companies are for?
freethinking
1 / 5 (8) Oct 25, 2013
Alfie, if you think the 5'th columnists would actually publish it.... journalists who are not joining the Obama administration are too busy getting raided: http://dailycalle...ng-raid/

Or having there taxes audited, or having personal information leaked,