The Complex

Secure smart phones: The NSA's hot Christmas item

A growing cadre of soldiers, spies, and top government officials will soon be able to access and send some of the most important intelligence information from newly developed smart phones and tablets based on commercial designs, as the National Security Agency and Defense Information Systems Agency move to distribute some of the devices before the end of the year.

For months, NSA's Fishbowl program has been testing a smart phone running Google's Android operating system that is capable of handling both regular data and highly sensitive information with a limited number of people on a "closed network." Come December, the phone will be released to a broader group of users across the government, who will be able to use it on an "open network," according an NSA official.

At this point, those of you who work for Uncle Sam may be wondering, "Will I get one?" Unfortunately, the NSA would say only that "some number of customers" would get the early holiday present. Those lucky few will be able to use the devices, which are aimed providing "protected classified intelligence at various levels" within the Defense Department and the intelligence community, Debora Plunkett, NSA's director of information assurance told Killer Apps.

"We're also working on a tablet...and we hope that in the next six to nine months we'll have a tablet that's out and in [limited] use," said Plunkett.

If all goes well, officials carrying the devices will be able to access the most sensitive intelligence from almost anywhere in the world, anytime. Today, spies and other government officials that need to access super secret information on the go must carry special phones that cost thousands of dollars. Right now, "if I go on a trip for work and I need to communicate back to my office, I have the potential need to carry four different telephones with me," said Plunkett.

While the test device being used in the closed pilot program isn't one you can walk into the Verizon store and buy, NSA and DISA (which handles the Pentagon's communications hardware) are working to make this a reality. "The goal is to eventually employ a completely [commercial] solution whenever and wherever possible," said Plunkett. "Today, not all of the pieces are in place for a 100 percent [commercial] solution, but we continue to work to support that goal."

The new phones and tablets being developed by NSA are modified versions of commercial designs meant to work on commercial networks around the globe using Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and data apps and will take advantage of cloud computing to keep highly sensitive information secure.

"We've moved beyond thinking that we're going to be able to run exclusively on [hardware] devices that we [design]  and that are purpose built for us," said Teri Takai, the chief information officer for the DoD during a separate interview with Killer Apps. "In general, we'd like to be able to move much more to commercial devices and, if we need modification, just minimal modification to commercial devices depending on the security level that's required."

Keeping data on the NSA's cloud servers rather than stored on a phone means that NSA will not have to worry about individual devices being compromised, according to Plunkett.

"Of course, the big baby on the table is the fact that having all of the information in one place makes for a big target," Plunkett said. So, NSA controls access to the cloud with data tags. Basically, people who are supposed to have access to secret data are given a specific online ID tag -- or ticket -- confirming they are who they claim to be and that they are allowed to touch specific pieces of secret data. Those pieces of data are also tagged to prove they aren't malware and they will generate a list of everyone who has ever touched them.

This whole effort is tied to the military and intelligence communities' push to make intelligence and cyber technology accessible in the mobile domain.

The phone will allow operatives to "gather large [intelligence] reports and on the devices themselves, do some forms of manipulation in order to derive key pieces of information from that. Think about everything you can do on your personal device, we'd like to be able to do that in the national security space."

The next step in the DoD's evolution away from proprietary designs will hopefully allow users to use the same iPhone or Android device to make unclassified phone calls to pass secret information.

"That's what we're working toward, the challenge for us is that may not be one device for a while," said Takai. "It may be one device where you can call and pickup your kids, another device where you do command and control and another device where you do intelligence work; that's sort of the next frontier, to be able to do it on a single device."

That's right, spies and soldiers might someday be able to use the same device to coordinate picking their kids up from school (in theory anyway) that they use to analyze drone videos or pass targeting data.

"The customers that we deal with on our end want to be able to operate on a mobile way, they want to be able to move around in their environment and have real time access to the data they need to make decisions and that data isn't just voice or text on a screen, it's pictures, its video," said Plunkett. "We're heading to a place where our clients can actually do that, they can be anywhere anytime and have real-time access to data that allows them to make decisions that are critical to our national security."

The initial phones rolled out this year won't have all of these features, but the devices will be continually upgraded to include more features and improved security. At first, the devices will have voice, text, and some data with capabilities expanding as the program grows.

While Plunkett declined to say the specific make of the phone being tested, she did say that NSA's Mobile Innovation Center is testing "every popular mobile operating system that's in use today."

"The smart phone that we're using for the pilot is an Android-based smart phone, but we're not limiting ourselves to that; it just happens to be the one we picked to run the test," said Plunkett. "We want to give options to our customers, so if you're accustomed to using operating system x and you just like it, we'd like to make that an option, provided we can get comfortable from a security perspective."

So yeah, the president's iPad will soon be able to access secure information online, if it isn't already. White House officials haven't returned our requests for comment on the matter.

Kazuhiro Nogi/Getty Images

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