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Military use of COTS Android Devices – bad idea!

There is no doubt that leveraging the technologies that a soldier is comfortable using makes sense. We are all accustomed to having our cell phones and tablets with us at all times, providing us the key information we need to accomplish our tasks. Why shouldn’t our military service personnel have the same capabilities? They should! But…does it make sense to have them use consumer rated devices for their mission. No!

The military’s mission is quite unique. The men and women that rely on technology to accomplish their military missions are exposed to very different environments that the rest of us going about our normal day. These impact both the soldiers and their equipment. Some are obvious, such as environmental concerns- jolting shock and vibration, extreme temperatures (both frigid and desert), dust and sand, wet and humid, and salt exposure from seawater, all of which can quickly damage an unsealed device. Touchscreens often fail when used with gloved hands. While a consumer grade Android tablet or phone may work in 80% of soldier environments, that isn’t good enough. Soldiers need to know that they can rely on their portable devices anytime, anywhere.

Perhaps more importantly, recent articles have described security vulnerabilities in consumer Android devices and apps installed on them. These vulnerabilities can expose a soldier’s position, and therefore endanger the soldier’s life and the mission.

A common practice, as described in an article written by Susan Crabtree for The Washington Free Beacon titled, “Cybersecurity Experts: Stop Sending Troops Into Combat With Personal Tablets, Smartphones,” is for soldiers to upload military apps to their smartphones and tablets for use in the field. Some mapping applications installed on these devices have vulnerabilities that allow them to be hacked.

The article goes on to describe the results of an investigation by the US Navy Inspection General (IG), identifying two specific vulnerabilities and an associated recommendation:

“The IG’s findings were cited in a Marine Corps force-wide message in late June warning commanders that the applications are only used on military-issued “hardened” hand-held devices that are not connected to cellular or civilian Wi-Fi networks, not personal devices troops purchased commercially that are far more susceptible to malware and hacking.”

A military-issued “hardened” handheld device can still run Android and have a look and feel similar to the personal smartphone or Android tablet a soldier is accustomed to using. However, the Android operating system can be modified to remove points of vulnerability, lock down settings, provide user access control, prevent unwanted downloads, accept the installation of only specifically vetted applications, and even detect hacking attempts or malware installation. A hardened device can additionally be designed, from the ground up, to withstand extreme environments and harsh handling and detect physical tamper. Finally, the military device can integrate military radios or other communication protocols bypassing public networks that provide a medium for hacking.

SECO USA specializes in the design and deployment of rugged handheld devices and custom Android tablets. We are experts in translating use cases, technical requirements, and specific security needs (at the hardware, software, and physical world levels) into the most rigorous custom device solutions for the military, industrial and medical sectors.

Using custom “hardened” devices in the field is the right way to go for our military. The risks are too high otherwise. Contact SECO USA to discuss how custom Android devices, including military grade tablets and handheld devices, meet the challenge.

  • By: Keith Lowe
  • Published: Nov 5th 2018
  • Categorized: Blog
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