Minister’s phone confession raises eyebrows


Defence Minister Viola Amherd, as seen in parliament in December 2019 Keystone / Peter Klaunzer

Defence Minister Viola Amherd has admitted to Swiss public television that she usually uses her iPhone rather than the special encrypted phone given to cabinet ministers. Experts have raised security concerns.

SRF/ilj

Amherd's communications chief has since explained that very important information was discussed personally or in meetings rather than on the phone. Amherd has not broken any security guidelines, he said.

In 2013 it was revealed that the American NSA (National Security Agency) was listening in to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone. It is not known whether this was ever the case for Swiss ministers, but since then security measures around communication have been tightened.

This, says Swiss public television SRF, includes members of the Federal Council, Switzerland’s ruling body, having special “crypto” mobile phones, which do not use public mobile telephone networks – and are therefore more resistant to eavesdropping.

+ Our 2013 report on the government tightening phone security 

But in an interview with pupils for SRF on Friday, Amherd - who has been a minister since January 2019 - said that she had “not yet used this mobile phone”. In reply to the question whether she telephoned using a secure line when in the federal parliament building, she said that she telephoned, “almost only using the iPhone”.

Reaction

For Ueli Maurer, professor of computer science and head of the information security and cryptography research group at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH Zurich), this raises some security concerns.

“I would expect that ministers would use these encrypted telephones to communicate with each other. It’s surprising that Viola Amherd has never used it, but it’s certainly not a disaster,” Maurer told SRF.

Maurer believes that foreign secret services would listen in to the Swiss defence minister’s conversations. “Of course our most important people are in the focus of the NSA, I am absolutely sure about that,” he said in the interview.

Intelligence services systematically try and get as much information as they can. “If you use unencrypted communication, then there will be people listening in,” said the professor. Top secret issues should not be discussed on smart phones, he said.

Defence ministry stance

Renato Kalbermatten, head of communications at the defence ministry, offered some further explanations which were published on Saturday evening.

He told SRF that there were clear guidelines for using phones and that there was an encryption app on the iPhone.  But as every device could be potentially hacked: "Secret discussions take place in bilateral talks and in meetings. Mobile phones are left outside the room in boxes with jammers so it's not possible to listen in to the devices," he said. Mobile phones are also left outside during weekly cabinet meetings.

The "crypto" mobile phone is used for special cases, as Amherd said in her interview, but Amherd has always dealt with this kind of information via personal meetings. That's why this device has not been used, Kalbermatten said. 

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