Portable telephone encryptor
- this page is a stub
BRAHMS was the codename of a highly secret portable
speech encryption device,
developed in 1980 at the
Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) 1 in
Cheltenham (UK). Carried inside an unobtrusive black briefcase, the device was used
for secure communications between high ranking government officials,
inluding (then) British Prime Minister Margret Thatcher at the time of the
Falklands War .
The system was approved for high-grade traffic (TOP SECRET).
The image on the right shows the device as it was on public display as part of
the exhibition Top Secret at the Science Museum in London UK between
July 2019 and March 2020. It is housed in a 'Custom' briefcase and consists
of a simplex voice encryptor, a paper tape reader (for loading the daily key)
and a handset with an integrated push-to-talk (PTT) 2 button at the rear.
The device has two cables: one for connection to the mains, and one for
connection to a regular (analogue) telephone line, or PSTN (POTS).
It was connected in parallel to an existing telephone.
This was necessary because the device has no controls for dialling a number.
Before placing a call, the cryptographic key had to be loaded by means of a
punched paper tape that was fed into the tape reader at the right. Once this
was done, the call was initiated 'en clair' with the existing (insecure)
telephone set. As soon as the call was established, it was taken over by BRAHMS.
BRAHMS converts speech to a digital signal using a vocoder 3 and then sends
it over the analogue thephone line
by means of audible tones 4 at a speed of 2400 baud
(bits per second), which was the maximum speed that could be obtained anywhere in
the country at the time. Only one party could speak whilst the other one had to listen.
For this, the speaker had to press the PTT button on the handset. 2
According to the developer, 1 speech quality was rather poor at 2400 baud,
in particular with female speakers due to the higher pitch of the voice .
Nevertheless, it was used heavily in 1982 by (then) Prime Minister Margret Thatcher
at the time of the Falklands War .
It is currently unknown which encryption algorithm was used, but given the fact
that the key had to be loaded by means of an 8-level puched paper tape, it is
possible – if not likely – that it was the
secret SAVILLE algorithm.
SAVILLE had been developed at GCHQ in the late 1960s, together with
the US National Security Agency (NSA), and was also
used in early voice encryption systems like STU-I,
STU-II, KY-57 and Spendex 40.
It eventually became the defacto standard for NATO.
The diagram below shows how BRAHMS was connected to the subscriber line – in
parallel to the existing (insecure) telephone set with dial – and explains
roughly how the device works, based on the limited information that is currently
available in the public domain. At the right is the handset, which consists
of a microphone, a speaker and a PTT button. The microphone and speaker
are connected to a CODER and DECODER respectively — together known as CODEC
The CODEC converts speech to digital data and vice versa.
Although it hasn't been confirmed yet, it is likely that the CODEC was
an LPC-10 Vocoder, as that was the
state of technology that was also used on contemporary devices from sister
organisations, such as the American STU-I and
STU-II, and the Dutch Spendex 40.
At the time, it was probably the smallest device in its class.
When the user presses the PTT, the analogue signal from the microphone
is digitised (coder) and passed to the crypto unit,
where it is encrypted under control of the externally loaded key.
From there, it is passed to the MODEM, which converts the digital
data stream into audible tones, that are then sent over the (analogue)
telephone line using Audio Frequency Shift Keying (AFSK). 1
When the user releases the PTT, the audible tones from the telephone
line are converted by the MODEM into a digital data stream that is
subsequently decrypted by the crypto unit and passed to the Decoder.
The Decoder converts the decrypted data stream into intelligible speech –
using a complex scheme of mathematical calculations –
which is passed to the handset's loudspeaker.
Due to the nature of the LPC-10 encoding and
the low baudrate, the system cannot be used for authentication. In other
words, it is impossible to recognise the voice of the person at the other
end of the line. This is one of the reasons why a call always had to be
initiated in the clear.
It is also possible that Phase-Shift Keying (PSK) was used for this.
Similar contemporary equipment
Churchill's scrambler phone
During World War II (WWII),
(then) Prime Minister Winston Churchill
used a similar system known as the Scrambler Phone
(later: Secraphone), but that system was far less secure
Secraphone could easily be broken and was only intended as protection
against an unintentional eavesdropper, such as the exchange operator or
an engineer working on the telephone lines.
➤ More information
The operating principle of the BRAHMS is very similar (but not identical) to
a wartime machine known as SIGSALY, that was developed in 1941 at
Bell Labs and built by Western Electric.
SIGSALY was suitable for realtime full-duplex voice conversations, but was
so big that the British unit had to be installed in the basement of department
store Selfridges in London. The image on the right shows one half of the
system. The other half is behind the camera.
➤ More information
- Science Museum, exhibition Top Secret, July 2019 - March 2020
London, 29 November 2019.
- Gordon Corera, How Margret Thatcher's secret Brahms phone was invented
BBC News, Security correspondent, 8 June 2022.
- Wikipedia, Falklands War
Visited 9 June 2022.
- GCHQ, Image of a BRAHMS telephone encryptor
Twitter, 8 June 2022.
- GCHQ, Abridged Operating Instructions
Retrieved from lo-res image .
Any links shown in red are currently unavailable.
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© Crypto Museum. Created: Thursday 09 June 2022. Last changed: Thursday, 08 September 2022 - 06:17 CET.