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Friday, 19 July 2013

An unhackable, uncrackable iPhone messaging app

Shoreditch tech firm, Redact, have launched an iPhone messaging app that they say is completely uncrackable, unhackable and totally secure. Unlike a lot of people making big claims about their technology, they've actually put their money where their mouth is.
They've offered a cash reward to anyone who can intercept and crack a message from their system, as well as offering it free to MPs and FTSE CEOs. I suppose by laying down the gauntlet to the world hacker community they may end up with egg on their face, but I've got a lot of time for their confidence.
I talked to some security experts, and asked them if Redact's claims of being uncrackable were valid. Broadly, they agreed that it would be incredibly hard to intercept a message and decrypt a message; unlike BBM and iMessage, Redact doesn't have any servers, so there's no way round and messages are never stored.
One security expert told me: "They're boasting about the fact that they have 'military grade encryption'. In fact this is quite a bit better than what a lot of militaries and intelligence services are using." He went on to give the example of the British Army's radio system, which was sufficiently insecure in the late 1990s that it was reduced to using Welsh speakers on mobile phones because the radios were so compromised.

Our troops' radios have been upgraded since but are still unpopular. The current model was designed in the late 1990s, cost £2 billion to develop and is expected to be in service until 2026; if it's obsolete and despised now, how bad will it be in 13 years time? That, of course, assumes that it will be replaced on time.
There's a whole raft of other devices in government service that were purpose-built in the late 1990s and early 2000s, that now look pathetic compared to a £50 off-the-shelf Android smartphone – for example, the police are saddled with a widely despised "handheld computer" that was introduced in 2008.
As messaging apps overtake text messages in terms of use, it's clear that there's a market for secure versions for high-end use. The key thing is to keep that a market, and for the Government to stop picking "winners". At the moment, RIM have an all-but-monopoly on secure messaging for governments and corporates; it's good to see real competition developing.
To foster this competition, what governments have to do is resist the urge to go with single suppliers, avoid commissioning expensive purpose-built mobile hardware, and pick the best from the market. What you don't want is a situation like the one in the US, where the Pentagon put out a requirement for what amounts to a custom smartphone for spies.
Especially in the age of austerity, it makes sense to use as much kit off the shelf as possible; if Redact is usually more secure and, running off a standard smartphone, more functional, it offers the best value for money.
I guarantee that in five years, once the Pentagon phone clears testing and approval, it will be a clunky brick compared to whatever is on the market at the time – and, because of the sunk costs, the CIA will be using it for decades. Computing power is advancing so quickly, it just makes no sense to spend millions on a piece of hardware that is obsolete so quickly.
Redact tell me they are looking for government approval from the UK's Communications Electronic Security Group. If we stick to private enterprise, maybe, just maybe, British spies and troops will have better equipment than their American counterparts – but I wouldn't hold my breath.

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