Blurring the Lines Between Computers and Radios

When we think about computers in the military, we realize how valuable, important, and essential they are to the mission of today’s warfighters.  Very few technical tasks can be conducted anymore without a computer involved.  And a lot of that computing happens in the field, not just in office buildings and headquarters facilities.

But when we think about mobile smartphones in the military, everyone starts to get all squirrelly. 

A phone with access to classified information?  What happens if that phone gets lost?  What if someone puts Angry Birds on it?   Or worse, what if they put an app on the phone that sends all of the data straight to China?

Smartphones are like kryptonite to security personnel.  And I think I know why. 

Nice, Neat Boxes

Security folks like clean, explicit boxes to classify equipment, technologies and capabilities.  The difference between how to handle Unclassified, Secret, and Top Secret is extremely black and white.  Each level of security has its own rules, regulations, and workflows.  Devices that work on one level of security can’t touch information on another.  And at the highest levels of security, data cannot be transmitted wirelessly without using extremely controlled technologies.

Smartphones are difficult for security because they blur the lines between what we consider to be a computer and what we consider to be a radio.

I think the problem is that when people hear the word “phone” they immediately think of a radio.  After all, cellular telephones were essentially radios.  An in military security, we treat radios differently than computers.  Radios have their own rules because they can transmit information.  And not being able to control those transmissions make security personnel nervous.

But here’s the thing.  Smartphones are no different than laptops.  They’re just smaller.

When we lock down a laptop computer for use on higher levels of security, we turn off the WiFi and Bluetooth capabilities in the laptop in such a way that they cannot be reactivated.  We lock down the operating system so that flash drives cannot connect to it.  We make it so that it is impossible to install new software on the machine without the right credentials, so no malware can be installed on the system.

We’ve been using laptops in classified environments for 15 years.  And security officials based a lot of the rules about laptops on the rules associated with personal computers, which have been in use in defense since the early 1980s.  In fact very few security specialists can remember a time when personal computers were not used for classified information storage and retrieval.

Perception is not Reality

So what makes a smartphone different than a laptop?  I think the difference lies in perception, not reality.

The real value of a smartphone is that they are handheld computers.  They can perform many of the same functions of a laptop or desktop computer, but with three new capabilities that set them apart:

  1. Multiple radios (LTE, 3G, WiFi, Bluetooth, GPS, NFC)
  2. Multiple embedded sensors (compass, inclinometer, gyroscopes, camera, microphone, light sensor, etc.)
  3. A software user interface designed for the size of the input mechanism (a 4” multitouch screen)

So basically I think smartphones would be better defined as handheld computing devices

In that context, these devices should be treated the same way as laptop computers, with special consideration given to the fact that they have multiple radios, multiple embedded sensors and a new class of operating systems.

But again, when you talk about smartphones and security in the same sentence, most people in the military tend to freak out and immediately picture classified information being emailed to China.

The answer isn’t as simple as treating smartphones like laptops – that is certain.  But finding ways to disable (permanently and positively) the radios on these handheld computing devices would allow us to begin using the benefits of smartphones on the battlefield.

Coolfire Solutions has developed a product called ISR-V.  This is a hardware/software integrated solution that positively and permanently disables all of the radios on the consumer-grade smartphone.  We use the smartphone as a wrist-mounted computer that allows users to see video from nearby Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) platforms.  We make a physical cable connection between the locked down and radio-disabled smartphone and a Type-1 Radio already approved for communicating with ISR platforms.

We’re not interested in the radios in this smartphone / handheld computer.  We turn them off.  What we are interested in is the ability to give a soldier video on their wrist in a form factor that doesn’t cost millions of dollars in R&D. 

When the security folks are comfortable they’ve found ways to allow smartphones wirelessly communicate with protected networks, we’ll see a boom in mobile devices being used throughout the military.  I predict that tablets and smartphones will replace as much as 75% of laptops and desktops used in the military within 10 years.  Just like it was predicted in 1995 that laptops would replace 75% of desktop computers used in the military within 10 years (that came true).

The Coming Blur

Microsoft recently released Windows 8.  This operating system is designed more for mobile devices than laptop computers.  And Microsoft released a computing device to go along with the launch of Windows 8 that definitely blurs the lines between a laptop and a tablet. 

Every PC manufacturer is following suit with laptops that look more and more like tablets, and tablets that look more and more like laptops. 

Beyond that, there are now devices that blur the lines between a tablet and phone.  These devices, with screen sizes around 5-6”, are affectionally referred to as “phablets”. 

Across the globe, tablets and smartphones are now far outselling laptops and desktops.   It’s only a matter of time before the word “computer” has little meaning in our vocabulary anymore.  Instead we’ll refer to the form factor of the computing device – desktop, laptop, tablet, and handheld.

We don’t allow tablets to access classified networks.  We don’t allow smartphones to access classified networks.  But we do allow laptops to access classified networks.  But what happens when laptops and tablets are nearly indistinguishable from one another?  What makes a laptop different than a tablet?  Is it software?  Operating system?  Hardware?  Size?  Some other arbitrary line in the sand?

Even TSA lets me keep a tablet in my laptop bag while I pull out my laptop computer.  So what happens when I buy one of these Microsoft Surface devices?  Do it pull it out for security or leave it in the bag?  I’ll bet the answer will be different every time I fly.  I might even track what happens in a separate blog.

We need to be diligently working on ways to redefine mobile computing in our industry.  A laptop is a tablet is a smartphone.  Each has varying computing capabilities, varying sensors, and varying radios.  But they are all essentially the same. 

Until security is comfortable with these devices operating on a classified network, there are still hundreds if not thousands of practical applications for these devices that shouldn’t have security folks up in arms about using them.  Our Reconn and ISR-V products are two examples of how smartphones are used as mobile computing devices without using their radios.

So when you think about smartphones, think of them as handheld computers with a pack of radios that can be disabled – just like laptops.

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