State's leading figures may get secure smartphones

Smartphone. Source: ERR

This year, up to 240 people in Estonia will receive a secure smartphone. If the government approves a planned amendment to the regulations, individuals with secure phones will be able to use the to discuss classified information. The prime minister would be one such candidate for one of the special phones. At present, the head of government could not discuss sensitive issues via a smartphone if she was, for instance, on a visit outside of the capital.

As in most countries, strict rules have been set to protect state secrets and classified information. A person may have a state secret permit, but at present it is not conceivable for them to share sensitive information with anyone via a mobile phone. There are also many examples from the real world where a mobile phone may not be secure even for normal work-related calls.

"It is a well-known fact that when we talk about regular communication, it is not a particularly specialized art for professionals to hack it," Sven Heil, head of the State Infocommunication Foundation (RIKS), said back in spring.

The RIKS says it has been struggling for some time to provide encrypted mobile phones to persons who require it. The phones are now, however, approved by the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service (Välisluureamet) and technically ready for use.

"This is an ordinary mobile phone that can be bought from a phone shop. But its difference is that the corresponding software has been installed," government office Director of Security and Defense Coordination Indrek Sirp said.

These phones allow users to make calls, send messages, read e-mails and visit verified websites as with any smartphone.

The difference is that for security reasons, the phones do not allow apps that require an internet connection or Bluetooth connection, however.

The amendment to the regulation prepared by the government office also gives legal definition to such phones. If the government approves the draft, a limited level of state secrets may also be mediated in public.

"The idea is that the country's leadership can exchange the information quickly, not just between four walls," Sirp said. "And also to ensure that hostile services have as little opportunity as possible to eavesdrop on all this."

An example might be a situation where the prime minister is on a trip to Võru County, but an important meeting can't wait. "The prime minister could, keeping their distance from others, then discuss the necessary topics via this phone," Sirp said.

A limited level of state secret is the mildest degree of state secret.

"If it concerns foreign relations and foreign policy and is sensitive enough, then such information may be a limited level of state secrets," Sirp said. "And the prime minister and other ministers often exchange such information."

The development plan of the State Information Communication Foundation says that up to 240 people should receive a secure phone this year, while it is hoped that this figure will rise to 500 next year.

"If the implementation of this so-called first round goes well and successfully, it can be expanded," Sirp said. "But first and foremost, of course, strategic leadership is important. This means that the members of the government, chancellors, heads of agencies with security issues, but also the President of the Republic, the Riigikogu and so on. That circle is the first to have get the opportunity."

The restricted level of classified state secrets covers, among other things, information concerning security and alarm systems of national defense objects.

The same status is also applied to the state information system agency's (RIA) cyber security risk assessments, for example, when the vulnerability of government agencies' information systems are under discussion.

Police personnel's date also qualifies for the same restricted level of state secrecy, as involves a lot of procedural information. "This procedural information primarily concerns the area of ​​government of the Ministry of the Interior, but also the work of the Ministry of Justice, the Prosecutor's Office and the courts. So they also have a great need for such a technological solution," Sirp said.

In the financial plan presented in the spring, the state information communication foundation noted that until 2024, the secure mobile phone system would cost €400,000 to 500,000 a year. From then on, the costs should decrease.

The issue of the security of smartphones attracted media attention in 2019, when then-IT and foreign trade minister Kert Kingo (EKRE) was using a Huawei phone, despite security concerns about that particular brand and its origins.


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Editor: Roberta Vaino, Andrew Whyte

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