November 28, 2018

A new secure phone for outside the White House

Last Thursday, Americans celebrated Thanksgiving and traditionally the president addressed members of the military services that are deployed abroad. For Donald Trump this was the second time during his presidency.

The video footage and photos of that address also showed something that is one of the topics of this weblog: a new telephone used for top level telecommunications of the president of the United States:

President Trump speaks to members of the military over the phone
from his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach. November 22, 2018.
(photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images - click to enlarge)

The telephone set that president Trump used for his conference call can be recognized as a Cisco IP Phone 8841, but with some distinctive modifications.

Top Secret

The first one is that is has a bright yellow bezel around the high-resolution color display, while standard phones have a black or a silver one. As yellow is the color code for information classified Top Secret/Sensitive Comparmented Information (TS/SCI), the bezel shows that this phone can be used for calls at the highest level.

This phone is part of the Executive Voice over Secure IP-network, which connects the US president with all major decision makers, like the secretaries of State, Defense and Homeland Security as well as the Director of National Intelligence. The phones themselves have no encryption capability - they are connected to a central network encryptor, probably from General Dynamics' TACLANE familiy.

Fiber network

The second modification is that the device can be directly connected to a local fiber optic network, instead of the usual connection to a copper cable telephone system through an RJ-14 plug. Because signals traveling over copper cables cause electromagnetic emanations ("TEMPEST"), they are easier to intercept than when there's a fiber optic network.

The new phone was modified by CIS Secure Computing, Inc., which is a small company that provides additional security functions for commercial-of-the-shelf communications equipment. On its website it advertises the Cisco 8841 Fiber Enabled VoIP Phone and in the photo below the company's logo can be recognized on the back side of the device:

President Trump with the new Cisco IP phone seen from the back side. November 22, 2018.
(photo: AP/Susan Walsh - click to enlarge)

It's not known when exactly this new telephone was installed, but it must have been somewhere after Trump's first Thanksgiving address last year. Then we still saw the old phone for highly secure calls. This was a common Cisco 7975 Unified IP phone, which was also modified by CIS Secure Computing, providing it with TEMPEST protection and two 1 Gigabit SC Fiber ports.

Left: the old Cisco 7975 IP Phones in 2017; right: the new Cisco IP Phone 8841 in 2018
(click to enlarge)

White House

In the Oval Office, the old Cisco 7975 for the classified network had already been replaced by a Cisco IP Phone from the new 8800-series by September 2017. However, this phone has no additional security functions (like a fiber optic connection or on-hook disconnection of the handset) nor the yellow bezel.

The Cisco 7975 IP phones for secure calls were introduced in 2007 as part of a general upgrade of the White House communications systems under president George W. Bush. Meanwhile this type of Cisco telephones is about 15 years old, so the replacement may not come as a surprise.

It seems that with the modified Cisco IP Phone 8841 all the old phone sets for secure and non-secure calls, used both inside and outside the White House, have now been replaced by new devices from Cisco's 8800-series.

In Dutch: Meer over het wetsvoorstel voor de Tijdelijke wet cyberoperaties