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Teaching Android To Defend Itself

Posted July 29, 2013

A year after giving the Department of Defense a military grade version of the Android smart phone operating system (SE Android), the American NSA (National Security Agency) has released many of these new security features for use in civilian versions of Android. Initially, all NSA wanted to do was create a version of the cell phone/tablet Android operating system suitable for combat use. SE (Security Enhanced) Android is based on a SE Linux that NSA developed 13 years ago. NSA has been active for decades in “hardening” PC operating systems. Since Android is based on Linux NSA had a head start in creating SE Android and updating the new version of Android with better security for all users.

With most of the smart phones out there running Android, the NSA saw a national security interest in obtaining better security for the Android operating system. While the SE Android has features only the military needs (or would use) many of the basic security elements of SE Android are extremely useful for all Android users. Most of the security features for the latest (4.3) version of Android were originally developed for SE Linux years before the first smart phones showed up.

“SE Android” is the last key element the U.S. Army needs to move commercial smart phones and tablets onto the battlefield. The troops have been clamoring for a combat smart phone, and two years ago the army began field testing the Atrix smart phone and Galaxy tablet. Both use Android and are designated as NWEUD (Nett Warrior End-User Device) by the military.

“Nett Warrior” (after Medal of Honor winner Robert Nett) will drop the wearable computer and replace it with a smart phone/tablet version (NWEUD). What makes this possible is SE Android, which provides the security (enemy eavesdropping, hacking, and such) from problems that plague commercial cell phones and tablets.

Earlier attempts to create smart phone capabilities for combat troops produced a 2.3 kg (5 pound) wearable (and networked) computer with an eyepiece for the display and a handheld (or worn on the arm) input device (keyboard). This wearable computer integrated radio, GPS, and 16 GB of storage for maps, pictures, or whatever. Troops found the system too heavy and not as easy to use as a smart phone or tablet. Soldiers and marines know that most smart phones can do the same job as Nett Warrior, and now the army agrees and has been testing Atrix and Galaxy to see how commercial designs can be used to replace the older NWEUD prototypes. The army tested 1,700 Atrix smart phones and was satisfied with the functionality of a combat smart phone using SE Android. But now the army is testing the Samsung Galaxy Note II because users have indicated that this would be even more useful for troops than Atrix. The army wants to be able to move quickly to introduce new smart phone models, if only because the improvements in this area are both substantial and frequent. And most troops know their smart phone tech pretty well.

Over half a century of studies have discovered what an infantryman needs to be more effective. They need to know where they are, quickly. Having a poor idea of where you are has long been one of the main shortcomings of armored vehicles. Armored vehicle crews tend to be cut off from this while inside their vehicle where they are even more easily disoriented. When the shooting starts even the vehicle commander, instead of standing up with his head outside the turret, often ducks back inside to stay alive. Infantry aren’t much better off. Although they can see their surroundings they are often crouching behind something. When getting shot at standing up to look around is not much of an option.

Nett Warrior gives Team Leaders and Squad Leaders (and eventually each infantryman) a smart phone, perhaps still using an eyepiece (or something like Google Glass) as a display (or something attached to the helmet and flips down for use) and the smart phone/tablet touch screen to control the thing. GPS puts the soldier’s location on the map shown in the eyepiece. Meanwhile in Iraq, infantry officers and NCOs, equipped with map equipped GPS receivers (at first, then smart phones) found the map/GPS combo a tremendous aid to getting around and getting the job done. Nett Warrior also provides a wireless networking capability, so troops not only saw where they were in their eyepiece but could receive new maps and other information. Another goal is to use a vidcam to transmit images to headquarters, their immediate commander, or simply to the other guys in their squad. Perhaps most importantly the Nett Warrior gear provides the same capability as the 2003 “Blue Force Tracker” and shows Team Leaders and Squad Leaders, via his eyepiece, where all the other guys in his unit are. When fighting inside a building this can be a life saver.

Nett Warrior type capabilities are already changing the way troops fight. Everyone is now able to move around more quickly, confidently, and effectively. This has already been demonstrated with the Stryker units equipped with Nett Warrior type gear. Captured enemy gunmen often complained of how the Land Warrior equipped Strykers came out of nowhere and skillfully (and quietly) maneuvered to surround and destroy their targets. This was often done at night, with no lights (using night vision gear). When you have infantry using Nett Warrior gear to do the same thing on foot you demoralize the enemy.

For a long time the biggest problem was a rather mundane one, battery power. Expected advances in battery technology did not appear, so even if all the technology worked there was no way to carry sufficient batteries, much less keep Nett Warrior users supplied with them. Rechargeable batteries, with a longer life between charges, have largely solved that problem but largely by not solving the weight problem.

Troops in combat have some unique problems keeping smart phones operational. For one thing, there’s the problem of providing a reliable signal. But that’s long been a problem and there are a lot of new solutions that will work with a smart phone. Then there’s the need for encryption. Again, that’s another problem handled by SE Android. If the smart phone manufacturers and the NSA (SE Android) deliver the troops will use it. They most certainly want it.

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