News From Telecom World

Archive for December 2009

Karsten Nohl, a research scientist at a Californian security research firm H4RDW4RE, and a member of the Chaos Computer Club (CCC) in Germany, is behind the effort to crack the A5/1 encryption technology used by GSM, and he plans to release the keys publically on the Internet by the end of the year.

Every phone using GSM has its own secret key, which is recognized by the network. When a call is made the secret key is used to create a session key that is then used to encrypt the phone call. It is the session key that Nohl plans to crack.

Nohl has created an open-source program that will enable a peer-to-peer network of up to 80 computers to share the computing required to break the code. Since the files are distributed across the network, it will be virtually impossible to remove the code-breaking tool from the Internet. When the encryption code is cracked it will be compiled into a code book that could be used to decode any data sent to or from a GSM phone.

Computing time for the project is being speeded up by the use of components not usually found in a standard computer, such as the expensive Xilinx Virtex field-programmable gate arrays and Nvidia’s compute unified device architecture (CUDA) graphics cards. According to Nohl, graphics cards are faster than CPUs for certain applications, such as computing the A5/1 code.

The goal of the exercise, according to Nohl, is to highlight the vulnerability inherent in GSM technology and to encourage mobile phone operators still using the system to upgrade their digital phone system to 3G, which has better encryption, or to use the more advanced A5/3 encryption technology instead of A5/1.

GSM phone networks in the U.S. include AT&T and T-Mobile. Commercial tools that decrypt GSM communications have been available for some time, but they cost from $100,000 to $250,000. When Nohl’s project cracks the key and publishes the code book on the Internet, it will be possible for almost anyone to get the encryption key for any GSM call and eavesdrop on the call or read SMS messages.

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“When Western banking collapsed, one sector should have escaped unscathed: Islamic banking,” says Mohammad Saeed Rahman, chairman of a US-based think tank, the Institute for Halal Investing.

But from Mecca to Malaysia, the world’s Islamic bankers were paralysed and failed to take advantage of the opportunity.

And now Dubai’s debt problems have soured the sector’s image, with property developer Nakheel asking for the trading of some of its Islamic bonds to be suspended.

So what happened?

At that time, the world needed another hero. A way of doing business that was free from rampant speculation, free from excessive risk and was banking back-to-basics – taking deposits from savers and lending to borrowers for a profit.

Arising from the glittering new cities of the East, primarily Dubai and Singapore, was the champion of Islamic banking.

Faith in finance

“Technically, Islamic banks should have sidestepped the falling grand piano,” says the Institute for Halal Investing’s Mr Rahman.

“The industry was not allowed exposure to CDOs, derivative products and the kind of intra-financial counterparty risk that crippled the conventional banks.

“It couldn’t play the sub-prime mortgage game, was backed by real money in the form of petro-dollars and manufacturing export receipts. It was simple, straightforward banking.”

The two main principles of Islamic banking are an avoidance of interest and an avoidance of uncertainty.

Islamic economics is a well-documented system, practiced by the Prophet Mohammed, a merchant, and his companions. The core of the Islamic economic system is an avoidance of usury.

Islam is not anti-moneymaking. In fact, the Thatcherite dogma of self-reliance and entrepreneurship is championed in the Islamic sacred book, the Koran.

What is discouraged is making money from money.

Risk-sharing and trading is the central tenet of Islamic economics.

The financial institution goes into partnership with the borrower and both share from the profits of the venture. It is very similar in approach to private equity.

Principle and practice

The other prohibition is an avoidance of uncertainty or gambling. If Islamic economics had been at the centre of the global financial system, the type of speculation that has led to the emergence of bubbles and then runs on stock would not have occurred.

Finally, the need to have all lending fully covered by cash deposits, and the risk management that this would entail, would have never seen the emergence of sub-prime lending.

Conceivably, such a system, based on ethics and principles of fairness, could have created a “third way” between control-style and free-market economics.

However, principle is a long way from practice, and Islamic bankers are no more and no less greedy than conventional bankers.

The modern Islamic banking industry is very much in its infancy, with a history of less than 40 years.

But in an attempt to compete with the conventional finance industry – its fees, its bonuses – much of the modern Islamic finance industry has aped the practice of the conventional.

Sharia opportunities

Arguably, the modern Islamic finance industry and its cohorts of scholars, who give the official religious seal of appeal to the products of finance firms, have been set up to circumvent the principles of Sharia law.

Scholars and bankers have become more and more sophisticated in finding ways to get around the prohibition of interest and of uncertainty – and create a shadow of the conventional finance system.

“Both share the same material goals and adopt the same institutional structures, with the result that the products promoted by the Islamic finance industry are often indistinguishable from those of interest-based institutions,” says Tarek El Diwany, an analyst for London-based Sharia finance consultancy, Zest Advisory.

He explains that a serious and nimble response to these concerns is often hindered by a lack of intellectual honesty within the Islamic finance industry itself.

Platforms are rarely provided to scholars who wish to take one step back and question some of the fundamental concepts that are being applied.

Few questions are raised regarding the validity of Islamic debt financing, limited liability structures, speculative methods of market trading or the nature of the monetary system.

Such matters are given little attention in the headlong rush to copy interest-based methodologies.

Money trap

This has resulted in a number of embarrassing paradoxes.

For example, while some Islamic investment managers attempt to develop Sharia-compliant short-selling techniques, several Western authorities are banning the practice, on account of the instability that it causes.

The missed opportunity for Islamic finance is that in the “sunshine years” when all assets seemed to be heading northwards, the industry morphed into a soft version of the conventional industry and became vulnerable to the same systemic failures.

The Islamic banks and the Islamic bonds they issue will default, and are doing so as we speak.

The banks, and the governments that finance them, have fallen into the trap of creating money and then making money from it and will suffer from boom and bust.

For Islamic finance to step into the mainstream and offer a third way, there will have to be a reconsideration of the objectives, institutional frameworks and contractual methodologies of the modern Islamic banking and finance industry.

This effort must encompass the full range of technical and scholarly opinion, and it must have sincere political support.

Soberingly, “Christian” banking started off prohibiting usury and evolved into the Wall Street and City we know today. Islamic finance must try to avoid doing the same before the process becomes irreversible.


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