We were well into the northern end of the Chesapeake Bay, a couple of miles off the mouth of the Severn River. Resting on what would normally be the boat's beverage-preparation area was a black box about the size and shape of an old-style cassette recorder. Attached to that was an Hewlett-Packard Tablet PC and an Iridium satellite phone. We were logging in to a secure site on the Internet.
As I watched the signal strength indicators for the satellite wax and wane, I wondered whether we'd be able to keep the connection. We did, and in a few seconds, the screen on the computer showed a menu. We'd achieved a secure connection using Type 4 encryption from a boat. Not bad for a piece of technology once restricted to government use by spooks and generals. The SwiftLink 1400 from TeleCommunication Systems was entering the commercial marketplace in a big way. (Look for a review of this device in a future issue of InfoWorld.)
What make the SwiftLink 1400 unique are its portability and flexibility. It only weighs a couple of pounds, and it can apparently use any form of communication short of semaphore flags. We set up a satellite connection from the boat, but the device can also use the GSM cell phone network, analog and digital phone lines, Wi-Fi, and Ethernet. We called up Google using T-Mobile's GSM network and then headed for Starbucks to try out Wi-Fi.
It was a sobering experience -- that much capability in a box you can fit into a briefcase. But I had to ask myself, is there really a commercial need for such a device?
Clearly there is. Despite the SwiftLink 1400's $16,000 price tag, information-security and privacy requirements have reached the point where remote communications must be secure to meet a collection of government requirements. And of course, in many industries, the safeguarding of intellectual property is vital. You don't want your competitors to know what you're up to, but it's hard to operate from a remote location -- a Starbucks or an airline club, for example -- without leaving your communications open to anyone who wants to intercept them.
The government has handled this problem for years with a range of encryption devices that were portable only in the sense that you could fit them into the trunk of your car. Lately, however, advances in technology and the availability of commercial-grade encryption modules that can be swapped for military-grade models mean that this technology has now become available to anyone with the need and the money.
For some, the need to encrypt everything isn't there yet. In fact for most of us, the only thing someone intercepting our traffic would see is a lot of spam. But if your company has information that needs to be available to traveling executives and is so sensitive that you normally wouldn't let it off the property, this is one way to protect it. Although we haven't finished reviewing it, it appears to be a pretty good way at that.
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