GPS phones confiscated from reporters in Iraq

R. A. Hettinga rah at
Mon Mar 31 07:49:05 PST 2003

New Scientist

GPS phones confiscated from reporters in Iraq 

15:26 31 March 03 

Will Knight

Satellite phones with built-in Global Positioning System (GPS)
capabilities have been confiscated from journalists travelling with US
troops inside Iraq, due to fears that they could inadvertently reveal
their positions.

Reporters "embedded" with the troops have been asked to hand over
satellite telephones operated by Thuraya Satellite Telecommunications,
a communications company based in Abu Dhabi. The restriction is
limited to units near the war's front-line and is expected to be
temporary, a spokesman for US central command in Qatar told New
Scientist .

A spokeswoman for the US Department of Defense added that reporters
with unaffected satellite phones would be asked to share them and that
military communications equipment would be made available when
possible. Replacement phones could also be sent to the front line.

Richard Langley, a GPS expert at the University of New Brunswick,
Canada, says US military commanders may be concerned that positioning
information embedded in signals sent by the Thuraya phones could be
intercepted and used by Iraqi forces to locate and attack US troops.

"It's not impossible, although it would be rather difficult," Langley
told New Scientist . "The signals are line-of-sight [from handset to
satellite] so very little would leak out and be interceptable on the

Ground station intercept 

It would be easier to intercept the signal as it arrives from the
satellite at the network operator's ground station, he says. But even
in this case, any interceptor would still have to crack the encryption
protecting the signal.

An alternative concern is that the US military are worried that
computers used to store call information are vulnerable to cyber
attack. "Perhaps the concern was that there would be a log of these
positions kept on a computer somewhere," Langley says.

Positional information captured by any means would only be useful for
as long as the caller remained in the same place, he notes: "Anyone
wanting to use the information would have to work quickly."

Thuraya telephones can connect to GSM mobile phone networks when they
are available, and a satellite network when in more remote areas. The
phones can also be used as a GPS receiver, determining its position by
communicating with satellites in the GPS constellation.

If the GPS functionality is switched on, the caller's co-ordinates are
automatically embedded in the voice signal sent to the communications

R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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