A US semiconductor startup has developed a consumer version of voice encryption technology that was previously only available to the military and diplomatic corps.
The aim is to try and cash in on what it anticipates will be huge demand for cellphone, landline and Internet communication that is secure from interception and eavesdropping.
Starium, which is based in Monterey, California, will offer an application specific product based on 168bit Triple DES and 2,048-bit Diffie-Hellman key exchange technology. The technology is also used in the National Security Agency's (NASA) Secure Telephone Unit(STU-III), which is now in its third generation. Other commercially available point to point voice encryption technology uses scramblers or 40bit keys.
While Starium?s handset will be half the size of a Palm Pilot and include all the same functionality as the STU-III, it will cost less than $100 compared with the STU-III?s $3,000. The unit can digitise a voice signal, compress it, encrypt it and transmit it with virtually no delay.
It is based on a software algorithm that Starium developed itself, which is small enough to run on the embedded microprocessors commonly found in digital cell phones.
Lee Caplin, Starium?s president and chief executive, expects the first products to hit the market this summer and says a single chip solution, with embedded DRAM, will appear in the next year. Starium will target the offerings at both consumers and corporations, particularly financial institutions, banks and law firms.
While some analysts question whether there is demand for this level of security, Caplin expects the market to be worth " hundreds of millions of dollars."
He predicts that Starium will generate $20 million in revenues next year and $100 million the next. "In the old days, your grandmother got on the telephone and she could hear other voices on a party line. Today, the party line is the world. Your grandmother was willing to pay extra for a private line. We're offering that for less than it cost your grandmother," he said.
Caplin also expects to have adapted the encryption technology for use in computer telephony by early autumn, and for Internet telephony by next year.
STU vendors, on the other hand, had intended to release high level encryption technology to the public earlier this decade, but had to shelve their plans when the US Government required that they include a key to enable its agencies to decrypt traffic for law enforcement or national security purposes.
The Government now seems ready to relax its restrictions, however. A Bill has just been introduced that directs the National Institute of Standards and Technology to create an advanced encryption standard by 1 January 2002.
It also allows encryption technology with key lengths of up to 64 bits to be exported immediately. Technology of more than 56 bits currently requires an export license and can be banned from export to certain countries.
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