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What Is a Secure Telephone?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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A secure telephone enables confidential communication between two or more parties using mutual encryption. The parties can also utilize authentication technology to verify their identities before initiating a conversation. Secure telephones are in use at a number of government agencies and offices like embassies, in addition to companies that handle secure or proprietary information and want to make sure it remains confidential. The cost for setting up a system can depend on the type of technology and the level of encryption needed.

Ordinary telephone communications are highly vulnerable to a man in the middle attack, where another party taps into the line to listen in on the conversation. This could pose significant security risks if a conversation involved matters of national security or other sensitive information. With a secure telephone, the devices used by all parties on a call encrypt data on the way out, and decrypt it on the way in, using an encryption key. This can include not just voice but other data transmissions, allowing for transmission of text and video.

Users of secure telephone technology must have compatible systems, which can add to the expense. Organizations may need to maintain multiple systems to communicate with different contacts, or could need an overhaul to get current with a partner agency. Each system may use different methods to handle data, which means that competing products are often not compatible. One way around this is the use of secured communication on voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) technology, where users need software programs, rather than entire hardware systems, to secure their communications.

Some secure telephone models also provide room for authentication. This allows users to exchange keys to verify their identities before the phone call takes place, to limit the possibility of impersonation or spoofing. Authentication is usually necessary when parties on a phone call have the capability to authorize significant decisions, such as a launch of nuclear weapons. People on all sides want to make sure they are talking to the right people, and can exchange authentication information as well as unique codes during the call to confirm verbal orders.

Enabling secure communication on mobile devices can be somewhat more challenging, as they are by nature easier to sniff with devices that can harvest wireless signals. If the encryption is not sufficient, a hacker may be able to break it and listen in on conversations. This can be a concern for government officials who want to be reachable by secure telephone, and cannot always rely on landline access.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a EasyTechJunkie researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Mor — On Jul 18, 2012

@pastanaga - If you're worried about phone hacking, there are definitely ways to encrypt your cell phone conversations, although I believe most of them are only available on smart phones and they are fairly expensive. According to an article I read, they are often used by people who want to avoid government surveillance for whatever reason, although they are available to anyone who wants them. There are also internet phone encryption programs available.

Do be aware that the government might become aware of you simply because you decide you need to have secure phone lines for no real reason. The best way to make sure no one is listening is to not give them anything to listen for.

By pastanaga — On Jul 17, 2012

@croydon - It's not as far from your life as you might think. Criminals try phone schemes on people all the time. They will call up on a faulty line and pretend to be someone you know, perhaps saying they are in financial trouble and asking for money. They might listen in on your conversations beforehand in order to get a feel for what to say to you.

There are also ways for people to tap into your computer, so that they can see your Skype phone calls and take advantage of you that way. I know it doesn't sound plausible, and it's not all that common, but remember no matter what you earn, you're probably worth robbing for someone in Nigeria and with computers they have the ability to do it now.

So, if you can, try to make sure your computer is air tight and that you are careful with your phone conversations. And you might want to pick a code word with your friends and loved ones, so that they know how to prove it's them. Or even just don't be afraid to make someone prove who they are. I've managed to catch someone out this way and it's scary to think what might have happened if I didn't.

By croydon — On Jul 17, 2012

Using secure phone lines seems like something out of a political thriller, rather than something that needs to be done in real life, although I can see why governments would need to use them. I guess it's the same kind of technology arms race that all security systems go through. No matter how secure you think you've become, there is always going to be someone who figures out how to break through your systems.

I have no idea what would even be involved in doing that. I guess it's not something that's got anything to do with my day to day life.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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