In the wake of the Edward Snowden NSA leaks, the Defense Department is scrambling to secure data on the growing number of mobile devices and computers with access to sensitive materials.
DOD’s latest action to safeguard data is limiting the use of IPhone and Android phones, forcing an unspecified number of Army personnel to using a Blackberry—a cellular phone that was once considered state of the art until the iPhone came along. iPhones and Android phones don’t use the Good Mobile Messaging System used by DOD to send secure data. Until the Pentagon upgrades to Fixmo, a new $16 million system compatible with the more advanced phones, some soldiers are going to have to carry the unpopular Blackberry.
An email announcing the change and obtained by NextGov.com said, [Army personnel] "have been told that between now and whenever this 'fixmo' is online, their Droids and iThings are simply to become useless. Expectation is that Droid and iThing users will be deviceless until March 2014 at earliest, and they can either do without or go back to a BB 9930," an older Blackberry.
According to tech experts, the switch from more advanced phones to older model Blackberries is one small part of DOD’s seemingly never ending task to secure data. DOD faces tremendous challenges on this front.
John Slye, an advisory research analyst at Deltek, called what’s unfolding at the Pentagon the “perfect storm.” First, DOD allowed soldiers to use late model smart phones, forcing the department to keep up security on mobile devices like iPads and Androids. Technology on these newer devices evolves quickly, forcing DOD to continuously update security software to keep up.
At the same time, soldiers are demanding more mobility in how they work.
“People are accustomed to using them for their everyday life. The warfighter wants to bring this technology to bear for their office work and a combat situation," Slye said. "The question the Pentagon is asking now is, 'How do you adapt to the rapid mobility trend and combine that with security issues and a legacy network [the security network used on Blackberries is almost 10 years old]?"
"It doesn’t help that the rate of technology change continues to increase," he added. "You’re trying to adapt to things based on yesterday's standards."
The Pentagon does not include a budget line for data security in its annual budget. But according to an analysis by Biometrics Research Group, the United States is spending $5 billion on data projects this year, the majority of which are in the Pentagon. By 2017, they expect that that amount to rise to $8 billion.
This is because data security – or lack there of – has been front and center in the American security community since Edward Snowden made off with a treasure trove of classified documents. He leaked these documents to the press, forcing the White House to admit embarrassing details about its intelligence collecting activities around the world.
Late Wednesday, documents leaked by Snowden revealed that the NSA collected 5 billion cell phone records per day. According to Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian newspaper that published many of Snowden's documents, there are likely more disclosures to come.
"We have published I think 26 documents so far out of the 58,000 we've seen, or 58,000 plus. So we have made very selective judgments about what to print," he said during a parliamentary inquiry in London Monday.
Ironically, one of Snowden's revelations might be behind DOD's decision to limit mobile phone use. The National Security Agency had successfully targeted German Chancellor Angela Merkel's mobile device. If her phone is vulnerable, anyone’s is.
"It’s definitely part in parcel," Slye said when asked about the connection between DOD's security push and the Snowden revelations. “For security across government, the Snowden debacle is widespread.”
And it’s not only phones DOD has to secure. Soldiers are using all different kinds of laptops and mobile devices to do their jobs. DOD is in a constant scramble to make sure that the data they access on these machines is secure.
“This is why you see pushes for multi-level security,” Slye said. “DOD has to encrypt [data] in multiple ways. You can’t do that without bringing that to bear on a whole host of mobile and wireless devices.
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