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Voice crypto fails spark astroturf claims

SecurStar denies running dirty tricks marketing campaign

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Doubts have arisen about the integrity of supposedly anonymous tests on the security of voice encryption products.

As previously reported, an "anonymous hacker" called Notrax claims to have defeated 11 out of 15 phone scrambling technologies using the commercially available FlexiSpy wiretapping utility and a 'homemade' Trojan. Notrax published findings from his ongoing work on a blog at infosecurityguard.com.

Other security watchers were suspicious of what the tests actually proved and whether they were actually a marketing exercise disguised as a security review. News of the tests was publicised last week via a press release issued by SecurStar, the developers of PhoneCrypt, one of only three products and the only software technology to come out clean from the tests.

The previously unknown infosecurityguard.com used by Notrax is anonymously registered. Security blogger Fabio Pietrosanti (naif) turned Veronica Mars by baiting a blog post on infosecurityguard.com back to a post on his blog at infosecurity.ch.

This meant that when the blog post on infosecurityguard.com was approved the IP address of a machine making the approval was recorded in infosecurity.ch logs. Sure enough this happened, allowing the IP address of the infosecurityguard.com blog to be traced back to SecurStar.

"This is evidence that the security review made by an anonymous hacker on infosecurityguard.com is in facts a dishonest marketing plan by the SecurStar GmbH to promote their voice crypto product," Pietrosanti writes in a post containing screenshots and evidence to support his conclusion.

Pietrosanti added in an email to El Reg: "I don't remember in all my life a so irresponsible and dirty marketing trick in the security world, abusing of hackers reputations."

Asked to comment on this evidence, SecurStar chief exec Wilfried Hafner denied any contact with Notrax. Notrax, he said, must have been using his firm's anonymous browsing service, SurfSolo, to produce the results reported by Pietrosanti.

Hafner firmly denied suggestions SecureStar had commissioned the research. "If we had done this research we would have published the results ourselves and taken the credit," Hafner told El Reg. "We don't know of Notrax, although it's possible he might have been a tester we gave products to in order to test."

Notrax's work had only publicised a well-known problem, according to Hafner, the susceptibility of phone encryption technology to viruses (malware). "The difference is he taped the tests and posted a YouTube video," Hafner said.

Hafner argued more attention ought to be focused on the results of the tests rather than who is behind them. He criticised Pietrosanti for trying to discredit the results of the tests but acknowledged that other criticism of the test methodology being less than objective may have some validity.

He denied running an astroturfing campaign. "The results were quite favourable. I think that many firms when they see such research would jump on the horse and use it for marketing."

SecurStar's decision to use Notrax's research for publicity purposes just days away from the Mobile World Congress has sparked a scrap that has turned personal. Pietrosanti's blog post points out that Hafner was jailed for three years for phone phreaking offences in Germany back in 1994.

Hafner acknowledged this but said this happened well before he co-founded SecurStar in 2001. "I broke into satellites. It was wrong but it was a long time ago and gave me a solid understanding of security. People are mashing [throwing] dirt to make me and SecurStar look bad, as if we had done something wrong."

Pietrosanti works for a Swiss firm called Khamsa who make phone encryption software called PrivateGSM and have crypto luminary Phil Zimmermann on the board. Zimmerman's Zfone software was one of the 11 products that failed the test. "This is why he [Pietrosanti] is trying to discredit the tests," Hafner alleged. ®

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