Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Future of Cell Phone Security

Sometimes ideas collide and produce solutions.  And sometimes they produce more questions.  Consider these:

1. A drug cartel in Mexico constructed its own radio network of 160 antennas to provide itself with secure communications. 

2. Espionage now includes remotely turning on an enemy's cell phone to pick up audio and video of what they're up to. 

3. You can buy a MicroSD chip (just like the one in your camera), plug it into your cell phone, and have encrypted messages and conversations.

How are these three things related?

It's all about communications.  Not just for cool government agents or high-tech hackers, but for businesses and individuals who want to protect their intellectual property and their privacy.

Most of us don't need our own secure network of radio towers, and we don't have billions in cash like drug cartels.  But think about what you say over your cell phone.  We treat them like land line phones, but they are not the same.  Or consider what you send out in text messages.

Most of what you communicate is probably innocuous, but if you're in a business where you want to protect your ideas, it's worth considering that someone may be interested in stealing them.  Not only is corporate espionage real, we frequently have cases of governments stealing from businesses to give their country a competitive edge.

Suddenly the idea of plugging a security chip into your smartphone sounds kind of useful.  I'll bet your cell phone provider will offer this as an extra feature bundled in with the next smart phone you buy.

(The first I heard about the cartel communication network was this TED talk by Marc Goodman, but he may have said it was a cell phone network.  Still, this article in Business Insider and this one in Gizmodo make it clear the cartel had a pretty impressive system.  This wikipedia article has a thorough explanation of MicroSD cards and related tech.  Koolspan makes the TrustChip for cell phones I wrote about, but I first saw it mentioned in Technology Review.)

(The pic of the TrustChip MicroSD is from Koolspan.)


  1. Interesting and scary sidenote on the Mexican drug cartel commubucations infrastructure. as reported by NPR a year or so ago, the cartel would identify various telecommuniations workers and kidnap them from their houses or hotels. The FBI got involved since several of the missing were Americans. At first it perplexed the law enforcement as they realized that several telecom technicians were abducted and no ransom note followed. Then they realized just what you stated, they were building their own network. Nearly all of the technicians were never seen again, dead or alive. Yikes.

  2. That is interesting and scary! It also shows the importance of secure communications--whether you're serving in the military or running a drug cartel.