Telecom says single number will be secure

The risk of spoofing is real, but already possible, telco says

A future phone network mooted by Telecom where a phone number identifies a person, not an instrument or connection point, will pose security and authentication challenges, says Telecom’s Murray Milner, but they're not insurmountable. “We expect to be able to make such a network at least as secure as the PSTN is today,” he says.

The capability, discussed by Milner at a recent telco conference in Wellington, will be based on the pure IP network already under development and will use a “private space” of IP numbers where the number associated with an individual "will not be exposed as it is on the internet", Milner says.

Cracking the secrecy and uncovering such numbers — potentially allowing “spoofing” of another’s identity — is not impossible, Milner concedes, “no more so than the ability some people have to break into today’s network.” The PSTN is not entirely proof against such subterfuge, but it doesn’t happen often, he says, and will happen no more frequently with the new structure.

Customers will need to authenticate themselves periodically to the telephone instrument they are using (probably with two-factor authentication) and authenticate the instrument to the network. This could be done with every call if the individual were very security-conscious, but most people, for convenience, would probably settle for less frequent authentication, Milner says.

The caller’s authenticity will also be protected by relationships established between IP numbers and physical ports and by “border gateway control” designed to detect irregular packets, Milner says.

Telecom is already marketing to businesses some equipment and services that implement the personal identifier philosophy within a closed network, he says. “Some of the IP PBX solutions we market from Cisco, Nortel and Alcatel have this ‘presence’ capability; you dial related to a ‘buddy list’ and the system finds the other person wherever they are on the network. You can be told their location and the state of their telecommunications — what device they’re on and the bandwidth they have. This, of course, is in the broader communications context where you might be sending them data or video.”

The new system will be inherently capable of multipoint calls, so the legal requirement to make calls interceptible should if anything be easier to satisfy; Milner says; the authorised observer would simply join the call as an invisible third party.

“We’re not forcing anyone to take these options,” he insists; a caller who wants to be associated only with one phone at one location will be free to keep it that way, “but we think people will find the capability attractive”. The popularity of mobile phones gives an idea of the appeal of having a personal connection. “People set up their own contact lists, blacklists and ring-tones and some of them feel quite lost when they have to use someone else’s non-mobile phone.”

The new-style network will naturally require extensive overhaul of Telecom’s billing and customer management system. Not only will everyone normally be billed for only their own calls, there is likely to be a facility for calls made by one person to be automatically billed to another.

Development has already started, but the full capability is at least five years away, Milner says. In the interim, of course, ideas and the capabilities of the technology may change and the development take a slightly different path from that envisaged today.

The new design will mean potentially finer-grained information for Telecom on its own customers' behaviour, but normal privacy principles will apply to its use, Milner says, reiterating that no-one has to move into the new structure if they don’t want to.

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