Army program for secure Android kernel technology gets attention of NSA and White House
Development strategy allows military smart phones to securely access classified networks
A major hurdle preventing the wider deployment of smart phones across
the U.S. military may have been overcome, and it’s got the White
One of the key problems in providing wireless devices to military
personnel is securing communications and providing some type of user
verification. A research team from Google, George Mason University and
the National Security Agency has potentially solved this by developing a
hardened kernel for the Android 3.0 operating system. The kernel, which
is in the final stages of certification testing, opens the way for the
Army to begin issuing smart phones or tablet type wireless devices to
troops in combat operations.
The White House has also been following the Army’s efforts because
the hardened kernel capability could help fulfill a government plan to
create a secure national wireless network for first responders, said
Michael McCarthy, operations director of the Army’s Brigade
Modernization Command’s Mission Command Complex, who spoke to Defense
Systems at the AUSA Annual Meeting and Exposition in Washington on
October 10. McCarthy also heads the service’s Connecting Soldiers to Digital Applications (CSDA) program, the lead organization involved in selecting handheld wireless technologies for military use.
One of the problems vexing Army smart phones
has been getting the right security accreditation to operate on
military networks and eventually on classified networks. This is
particularly important to allow smart phones to connect into battlefield
networks, McCarthy said. The initial goal is to get the hardware and
software accredited. “We have to have a way to verify the identity of
the user of the smart phone. So it’s a triple level security measure
that we have to deal with,” he said.
But there were delays in getting the operating system accredited
until the NSA came forward several months ago and offered to expedite
the approval process, McCarthy said. The new effort kicked off with a
series of meetings with CSDA program personnel and representatives from
the NSA and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The
Android kernel about a month ago is now being tested for a Federal
Information Processing Standard 104-2 certification, which is expected
by mid-October. “That’s the first level of security that we’ve got to
get before we start moving onto being able to ultimately do secret,” he
After the testing is complete, it is just a matter of filling out the
certification paperwork, McCarthy said. “That is a game changer for the
security business because it then sets the conditions so that in the
second quarter [late March 2012] they can do the certification of the
secure socket layer, which then gives us the ability to operate at the
classified levels,” he said.
In addition to the Army’s plans to provide troops with smart phones,
the Obama administration was attracted to the technology to support two
of its initiatives. One is an effort by the White House Communications
Office to move the executive branch from BlackBerry based devices to
Android-based phones. The reason for the desire to move is because
Android devices, with the new security kernel can be secured at a higher
clearance level than BlackBerry devices, McCarthy said.
In June, 2011 McCarthy was approached by the NSA to help work on the
problem. The White House interest came from the Office of Science and
Technology Policy, which supports Aneesh Chopra, the government’s CTO.
“They had apparently been tracking the CSDA project on the Internet for
several months, and they wanted me to come and give them a briefing,” he
McCarthy thought he was going to brief White House staffers, but
instead he presented to Chopra, his deputy, senior representatives from
the Justice Department and the FBI. The other, wider government interest
tied into an ongoing White House initiative to create a secure,
wireless national public safety infrastructure. The infrastructure would
combine all of the nation’s public safety organizations into a secure
wireless system, moving first responders away from radio-based systems.
“It is potentially a multi-billion dollar effort,” he said.
Justice is the lead civilian agency working on the White House
effort. There, the FBI and its scientists are the responsible for
developing their version of CSDA. The FBI and Justice are also planning
to conduct pilot projects, but on a larger scale than the Army, McCarthy
One of the concerns behind the government’s drive is that the radio
communications networks used by federal, state and local response
agencies are not very secure. This is a special concern for law
enforcement and emergency response organizations’ operational channels,
which could be subject to interception, spoofing and jamming. “They’re
looking at replacing radio with a smart phone,” he said.