All the Chancellor’s Phones

A Deutsche Telekom exec says he’s not surprised that Merkel’s Nokia Slide was hacked.

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives at the European Union council headquarters. (Francois Lenoir/Reuters)

BERLIN-- German magazine Der Spiegel reported last week, citing documents from Edward Snowden, that a mobile phone used by Chancellor Angela Merkel may have been hacked into by the United States National Security Agency.

German media reported that from 2009 until this past summer, Merkel had been using a Nokia 6260 Slide (really) for business related to her Christian Democratic party, and that this phone was reportedly compromised.

The news has been received here with a touch of schadenfreude.

Many Germans thought Merkel should have taken a harder line last summer in her talks with U.S. President Barack Obama after the initial tranche of Snowden documents revealed massive and widespread spying on Germans’ telecom and internet communications by the NSA.

But she didn’t, and some Germans are grinning at the thought that she, too, may have been ensnared in the Americans’ gigantic spying machine.

Der Postillon, Germany’s version of The Onion, quipped: “Merkel upset that U.S. is treating her like an average German citizen.”

Merkel’s personal phone is a standard issue LG Optimus One— it’s this gadget that she probably uses to ring her husband about the dinner menu during her famous stops in Berlin supermarkets.

She is also said to have access to two official government phones, a Blackberry Z10 with special encryption software and a Samsung Galaxy 3 outfitted with an encryption chip designed by Deutsche Telekom. The chip, called Simko3, encrypts both data and voice traffic.

An executive at Deutsche Telekom, who asked not to be named, said that these two phones are still likely secure. He explained the rationale for his company’s decision to develop Simko chips starting in 2007.

In a nutshell, the telecom provider concluded that the millions of lines of code that make up the Android and Apple operating systems leave them vulnerable to backdoors created by hackers or by, ah hem, governments.

Knowing that they could never find all the backdoors, Telekom decided just to build an encryption chip that could be installed in phones and essentially encode everything.

“We initially developed this technology for the government,” the executive told me. “We looked at risks for us a company and for the government—as well as for companies that need secure solutions, and realized we needed to make this.”

Telekom contracted with HTC and Samsung to make the limited-edition phones. A Samsung Galaxy 3, made to Telekom’s specifications, with a slot for the Simko3 chip, runs about 2500 euros.

The executive said the hacking of Merkel’s Nokia, on the other hand, doesn’t come as a surprise. High-level government officials in Germany had been warned numerous times about possible spying by foreign governments.

Most mid-level functionaries in the German government are using approved phones—it’s the politicians at the top, apparently, who are holding on to their insecure iPhones, iPads, and Nokia Slides, as was the case with Merkel

“Members of the Bundestag and even Ms. Merkel want fun, easy-to-use devices,” the executive said. “This isn’t just in Germany—other states have this problem too. We’ve told our officials about the risks of using non-secured devices, and they said ‘yes, we know, but no one will be listening.’ But someone with responsibility for a government might want to be more responsible. The German government wasn’t particularly interested in hearing this. People in the middle level—the functionaries—are using secure devices, but the upper-level people—the politicians—seemed not to be interested.”

The Telekom official said that the company had contacted Apple about installing a Simko chip in the iPhone, but was rebuffed.

“We joke here in Germany,” he said, “That the part that’s missing in the Apple logo—that bite on the right hand side—is your privacy.”