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Communications security or “COMSEC” as the military calls it, is just as important for those of us who want to survive whatever comes our way as it is for the military. The big problem for us though is that buying the necessary equipment is generally pretty expensive; it’s not something the average person can afford.
Of course, the other part of this question involves who we are trying to keep our communications secure from. Thanks to Eric Snowden, we all know the NSA (National Security Agency) is reading all our electronic communications. This is the same agency which allegedly intercepts messages sent by unfriendly governments and decodes them.
Considering that the NSA is used to breaking the best codes by countries like North Korea and Iran, let alone the big powerhouses like Russia and China, I seriously doubt that there are any commercial encryption programs or codes on the market which are safe from the NSA. So as far as I’m concerned, there’s no sense even trying. All that any such encryption would do is flag my communications as something that might be of interest to the government.
Criminals Will Be On The Loose During Dangerous Communications Blackouts
But the government isn’t the only one to concern ourselves with. I’m actually more interested in protecting my communications from others, especially the criminal element. In the wake of any disaster, criminals come out of the woodwork, looting and causing additional damage. If the disaster is serious enough, we have to expect that they will become violent, especially against those who might have things they need.
Today’s criminals have become more sophisticated, using the internet and especially social media to plan their activities. If the internet is still available, you can be sure that they’ll be working overtime. They’ll try to find people who have bugged out and where they can break in without running into anyone. Protecting our communications, especially those with our extended survival team, is a necessary part of our survival.
Equipment For Secure Communications
Regardless of the situation, there are a number of things we can do to make our communications hard to intercept and hard to understand, even if we don’t have encryption available to us. Let’s start out with some equipment solutions:
We usually assume that the internet will be down after a disaster. While that may very well be so, the possibility that it will be working, at least for a while, can’t be overlooked. Phone companies, whom many of us receive our internet access through, are required by regulation to have backup power so that they can keep on operating in the wake of a disaster.
The internet is your most dangerous communications option in a post-disaster world. However, it is possible to get encrypted communications over the internet. This allows you to send and receive messages that won’t be readable by anyone short of the NSA. A VPN (virtual private network) routinely encrypts communications sent between different devices on the virtual network. You would definitely have to set it up ahead of time. Nonetheless, if you had such a connection you would have very secure communications.
There are encrypted radios available which can be bought for use on the civilian market. While not as impressive as the stuff the military and government uses, it is robust enough to fool anyone who doesn’t have the same sort of radio. Some of these radios use as high as 256-bit encryption.
Mostly designed for public safety, these radios are available on the open market as well. Granted, they are more expensive than other sorts of business radios, but hey, we’re talking security here.
There has been a lot of talk about using disposable phones or “burner phones” as a survival tool. I don’t have a problem with that. In fact, I have them in my EDC bag and bug out bag. But those don’t provide much security during dangerous communications blackouts. About the only thing that’s secure about them is that you can use them without anyone knowing it’s you. Yet, that’s only if you have the prepaid kind.
Granted, that’s useful in and of itself. Being able to communicate via phone and then get rid of the phone so that nobody can call you back on it is an acceptable security tactic. Criminals and terrorist organizations frequently rely on this strategy. Notwithstanding, unless you have a large supply of burner phones, you can only use it a limited number of times.
Human Methods For Dangerous Communications Blackouts
Mankind has been concerned with secure communications since long before the ability to encrypt messages existed. Without electronic equipment available to do the work for them, people in the past resorted to using manual methods. Amazingly effective, many of these would still work for us today if we found ourselves in a post-disaster world.
The simplest form of secure communications is to use deceptive phrasing. You’d be surprised how well this works, especially if you are a bit creative in selecting your code words. Of course, you’d have to do that ahead-of-time, so that everyone on your team would know the code. While the enemy might figure it out eventually, this is ideal for verbal, radio or phone communications which are time-sensitive, because they probably won’t be able to decode it before the information is no longer useful.
Probably the greatest example of this was the Navajo Code Talkers in World War II. Men from the Navajo tribe were recruited to be communicators for the U.S. Marines fighting in the Pacific. These communicators passed tactical messages in their native Navajo language, which was unknown to the Japanese. Further complicating the communications, they would use code words to describe certain items, such as a “turtle” in Navajo was the code word for a tank and the Navajo word for “buzzard” was a bomber aircraft.
Morse code is probably the code with the widest name recognition, even though very few people know it anymore. While in common use during the early days of radio, few people bother to learn it anymore. Not even HAM radio operators need to learn Morse code any longer, although it was a requirement until 2007. About the only people who have to learn it today are pilots because they use it for call signs and directional signals.
It is unlikely that criminals are going to know Morse. However, if you want greater security, using Morse in conjunction with any other sort of code such as from a Cipher wheel would make your messages doubly hard to decipher.
A basic code normally substitutes one symbol (letter) for another. This can be a rather tedious, error-prone process. Nevertheless, it is effective and many individuals and government agencies have utilized this technique for centuries.
One of the earliest uses of a cipher wheel here in the USA was created when Thomas Jefferson served as George Washington’s Secretary of State. Invented by Jefferson, the device consisted of 36 cylindrical wooden pieces, each of which had the alphabet inscribed around the circumference in seemingly random order. The disks were then stacked on an iron spindle. Messages could be made by rotating the disks to spell out a message on one line. The coded message was then taken from another line.
These sorts of cipher wheels and others are readily available on online marketplaces such as Amazon.com. While slow to work with, the bad guys won’t be able to read your messages unless they have the resources of the NSA.
The most secure codes ever were one-time pads. These are so secure that the Russian security agency used them up until recent times. Today, the NSA has a computerized version of this which supposedly uses atmospheric noise to generate the transpositions, thereby ensuring that the code they produce is totally random.
Like the cipher wheel, the idea of the one-time pad is to substitute one symbol or letter for another. Actually, people often use them in conjunction with a cipher wheel, although not of the type that Thomas Jefferson created. The cipher wheel merely makes it easier to generate and decode the transpositions of the letters in the one-time pad, which helps to both encode and read the message.
There is actually a tool online which will generate one-time pads. I’ve tried it out, and while I wouldn’t really want to use it for lengthy communications, it is clear that it works. One could actually print out a large block of random code from this website and save it for use at a time when secure communications are necessary.
A Couple Of Last Details
You can also combine the methods I mentioned above for even more secure communications. For example, you could encrypt something using a cipher wheel and a code from a one-time pad and then you could transmit it via Morse code. In doing this, whoever was going to try and decode it would need to know all three methods in order to decode your message.
Of course, the most secure communications will always be those that you make face-to-face with someone you know personally. Some messages are sensitive enough that there is no other way of transmitting them due to the risk of others discovering the information. Part of knowing how to keep your COMSEC intact is knowing which messages you must handle securely and how secure you must handle them. Ultimately, extreme security may require extreme methods.
You may also enjoy reading an additional Off The Grid News article: How to Get Started In Off-Grid Communications
Do you have any thoughts on how to deal with dangerous communications blackouts? Let us know in the comments below.