Intercept System Could Be Concern for Satellite Phone Providers

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  Space News Business

Intercept System Could Be Concern for Satellite Phone Providers

By BARBARA OPALL-ROME
Space News Correspondent
posted: 17 December 2008
12:15 pm ET






TEL AVIV,
Israel
— A new Israeli communications intelligence system is generating interest among mobile satellite network providers whose services, they suspect, may be harmed by unchecked eavesdropping and intercept capabilities.

Developed by Elta Systems Ltd., a subsidiary of state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd., the EL/K-7099 is designed to monitor and intercept satellite mobile phone traffic conducted on L-band systems such as Iridium, Globalstar, Inmarsat and Thuraya.

Approved for Israeli Ministry of Defense-authorized sale earlier this year, the EL/K-7099 targets a niche part of the intelligence and national security market. It features small, so-called patch antennas for downlink interceptions and a high-gain antenna for uplink interception; all optimized for quick deployment in the field.

According to Elta marketing literature, the 30-kilogram system is man-portable or can be installed on vehicles, enabling simultaneous monitoring and interception of at least four calls made or received within an unspecified, but sizable area of interest.

The laptop-operated system, with its on-board deciphering capabilities, tracks target users, logs two-way traffic and records, stores or intercepts voice and data transmissions.

While several industry executives were unaware that L-band satellite-signal intercepting systems were available, others said they were following developments of this niche sector and its likely impact on customers.

“This has been a thorn in our side for a few years now,” said Bob Roe, president of Washington-based Stratos Government Services, whose parent company is a major reseller of Inmarsat and Iridium satellite services. According to Roe, L-band intercept technology currently available has had very limited success eavesdropping on satellite transmissions.

“Most of our customer base will use some type of encryption to mitigate existing risks … But our concern will increase as capabilities mature and systems become more sophisticated,” he said.

Salvatore Manno, director for capabilities integration at Inmarsat Government Services, said he was not surprised that such equipment existed. Nevertheless, he said he had not yet had reason to look into what capabilities were available and whether they presented problems to users of satellite services.

“From a satellite operator’s perspective, some protection to the user may be provided by the type of waveform used as well as having some form of encryption for the waveform,” Manno said.

Patricia Cooper, president of the Washington-based Satellite Industry Association, said the matter of L- band intercept systems had not yet come to her attention.

Similarly, Robert Ames, chief executive of the Satellite Users Interference Reduction Group, a Punta Gurda, Fla.-based industry association, said he was unaware that companies were marketing capabilities to intercept satellite telephone traffic. Nevertheless, if such systems were left unregulated, “It’s a recipe for disaster,” he said.

Ames
‘ organization has been wrestling with satellite interference issues stemming from the proliferation of advanced terrestrial wireless systems like WiMax.

“Taking a page from our WiMax problems, this could be very bad news,”
Ames
said.

Doron
Suslik, corporate vice president for public affairs at Israel Aerospace Industries, declined to provide further information about the EL/K-7099 system.

The Elta system is not the only product of its type available. K9 Electronics, a London-based contractor that markets to global defense and intelligence organizations, is advertising similar capabilities.

According to the firm’s Web site, K9 is marketing an Inmarsat intercepting system as well as an L-band satellite demodulator and analysis system. Future product offerings, according to the Web site, include an Iridium Passive Intercept System and a demodulation system for traffic carried by the Asia Pacific Mobile Telecommunications satellite consortium.

Representatives of K9 did not respond to requests for additional information by press time.