Information Warfare: The Poison Phone

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November 16, 2009: Satellite phones remain a favorite communications device for Islamic terrorists operating in remote areas (where there are no land lines or cell phone towers). Satellite phones first showed up in the 1980s, mainly for use on ships at sea. But by the 1990s, additional firms showed up, offering the satellite phone service for everyone. Some companies, like Thuraya, have only a few satellites and offer regional service. Thuraya phones initially worked only in the Middle East and North Africa. But these particular satellite phones incorporated normal cell phone service and GPS capability. This has become very useful for counter-terror organizations.

Thuraya is a cell phone company in the United Arab Emirates. The Thuraya service now includes parts of South Asia, and the Islamic terrorists who attacked Mumbai, India, a year ago, used Thuraya phones. Thuraya advises users that while the phones did transmit the GPS location periodically (to insure a good satellite signal), the information was sent in encrypted form and only someone with access to the codes, or with powerful decryption capabilities, could get the location information (of the phone broadcasting the information). Boeing, which manufactures the Thuraya phones, and many other components of the Thuraya system, is a major American defense contractor, and the U.S. has the most powerful decryption capabilities on the planet. It has long been suspected that the United States uses decrypted Thuraya GPS signals to find suspected Islamic terrorists.

Despite this known GPS capability, Thuraya has remained popular with Islamic terrorists, and outlaws in general. Part of the reason is cost. Second hand Thuraya phones go for about $200, and you can buy air time in advance (calls cost $1-2 a minute).

 


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