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U.S. military bans satellite phones

Both sides in the Iraq war are now restricting the use of satellite phones. The U.S. military is worried about potentially betraying the location of its units while Baghdad wants to make sure it doesn’t mistake Iraqis for Americans.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The U.S. military said on Thursday it had banned the use of Thuraya satellite phones by U.S. forces in the Iraq war and the news media covering them because the phones were a “security risk.” The nature of the risk was not disclosed, but the military has complained previously that the phone could tip off the locations of its units.

“RECENT INTELLIGENCE REPORTING indicates Thuraya satellite phones may have been compromised,” U.S. Central Command said in a statement from its war headquarters in Qatar. “The phones now represent a security risk to units and personnel on the battlefield.”

The ban, the statement said, “impacts the more than 500 Thuraya phones that were being used by U.S. Forces in the CENTCOM area as well as the media travelling with units in Iraq.”

The compact satellite phones popular with journalists use a highly-accurate Geographical Positioning System which can identify a user’s location to within 100 meters (yards). Experts say that could be useful military information in the wrong hands.

The now complete ban on the phones with journalists follows an earlier partial ban which prompted news media complaints of censorship. The U.S. military refuted the charge. At least one journalist’s handset was confiscated.

A spokesman at Central Command said journalists would not be asked to hand over their phones, just to stop using them until the “situation indicates that the risk has passed.”

Central Command said it had directed military units to help journalists file their stories through military communications equipment “to the greatest extent possible.”

It also said that news organizations could provide alternative communications equipment that would be sent to military units during resupply operations, Central Command said.

Thuraya is a telecommunications company based in the Gulf state United Arab Emirates.

Some experts say users could be in danger if the data gathered by the Thuraya satellite, which is downloaded to the company’s headquarters in the U.A.E., is passed along to other, “hostile” parties.

There has been no known evidence of that happening and on Wednesday Thuraya chairman Mohammad Omran told Reuters the phone were not a security risk.

“It is highly unlikely that our phones are endangering anyone’s lives,” Omran said.

“Callers must specifically request to see their position and even when they do, the information beamed back to them via satellite is encrypted and the code is difficult to crack.”

Iraq on Wednesday asked its citizens to hand over any portable satellite telephones they had, saying the equipment could be used by “agents” to guide U.S. and British bombs and missiles.

All satellite communications equipment is banned in Iraq but a government spokesman said in a statement read on Iraqi state television that many Iraqis had such equipment.

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