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Can These Phones Fight Russian Hacking?

OULU, Finland—"The enemy is always coming from the east," according to Jari Sankala, a Finnish mobile-phone exec.

The history of independent Finland has been one of fending off, pacifying, and generally trying to avoid being absorbed into Russia, its giant neighbor to the east. Russia owned the place for about a century; Finland is now in the midst of a long, nervous, and rather cold peace with the big bear next door. Finland has been "able to fend off Putin's information war," possibly because in the back of their minds, Finns are always about to be conquered by Russia, the magazine Foreign Policy said in March.

BittiumWith Russian hacking constantly in the news right now, it might help to find some phones designed with an awareness of that specific threat. In Oulu, in the Finnish sub-Arctic, we found Bittium, a secure mobile-phone company whose bosses seem to be very, very aware of the bear's claws and fangs.

Bittium used to be called Elektrobit; it changed its name in 2015 after shedding the automotive-related parts of its business. Back in the Elektrobit days, the company made the Terrestar Genus, an extremely ballsy hybrid satellite/mobile phone that suffered from being associated with a failing satellite provider.

Now, the company is making a range of hyper-secured "tough mobile" phones, both in mobile and satellite versions, one of which even turns into a police body camera when you snap it into a holster. And Bittium is pretty sure the Russians can't hack them.=

"We are prepared against hacking wherever it comes," Sankala, Bittium's senior VP of defense and security, said. He added that Bittium has ways to repel even man-in-the-middle attacks, such as "Stingray" fake towers and the notorious SS7 network flaw.

"Doing baseband firewall, we can defend against network-originated attacks," he said.

Tough Mobile

I tried out three of Bittium's phones, briefly. The Tough Mobile is a typical midrange, Qualcomm-powered slab, but it's ruggedized to military specs, and you can reboot it into a super-secure mode that runs only approved applications. The other phones were hybrid cellular-satellite models with big antennas you can screw on the top. The phones are extra loud, and they work when they're covered in nearly freezing mud.

Bittium's security extends to manufacturing; it makes its phones in Finland, using some of the infrastructure Nokia left behind after its 2012 collapse.

"That's part of the total security thinking," Sankala said. "Part of the device security is the place where it is manufactured, so no one can put anything inside. No one can trick anything when you control the whole production line."

Bittium Phones

The Department of Defense currently has LG, Samsung, Apple, and older BlackBerry products on its "approved products list" for multifunction mobile devices. Bittium isn't on the list. But its phones are some of the first to work on FirstNet, the public-safety-only network AT&T is setting up on exclusive spectrum. FirstNet, which is supposed to unify all of the chaotic networks that police and emergency responders use throughout the US, is either four or 15 years late, depending on how you define "late," although AT&T's announcement in late March reinvigorated hope that it will actually happen.

On FirstNet, Bittium's major competitors are California-based rugged phone maker Sonim and Motorola Solutions, which isn't the part of Motorola now owned by Lenovo but an independent American company.

And while Bittium's phones aren't DoD certified "under our own name," Sankala said, the company does white-label products, and its promotional videos for mission-critical battlefield systems that use reserved NATO frequencies are pretty American.

Related

With 450 people at its headquarters, Bittium is one of the bigger tech firms in Oulu, a surprising tech hub near the Arctic Circle that's also home to Polar fitness trackers and Nokia's 5G base-station manufacturing business. When Nokia fell apart around 2012, Oulu reinvented itself as a hub of tech startups, with dozens of small to mid-sized tech companies now calling the city of 250,000 home.

"During the Microsoft era of Nokia, there were so many unemployed engineers. That was a very good time to hire people," Sankala said, smiling.

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