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For Defense, Android is Becoming a Go-To Mobile Option

With an open source core, aggressive security and a continually improving set of features, mobile devices running the Android operating system are more popular than ever throughout the Defense Department. Jeff Henderson, Strategic Account Manager for Army and Special Services at Panasonic, explains why, and how Defense agencies can get the most out of their Android deployments.

There are currently about 70 Android apps in the USA.gov app store, which has to be an all-time record. Is the Defense Department’s use of Android growing as quickly?

Henderson: YesI can attest to it myself. Between 2010 to 2016 when I worked on the Air Force Team for Panasonic I didn’t see much use of Android in the Defense Department at all. In 2016 I moved to work in a different area for several years.  Now I am back working on the Panasonic TOUGHBOOK team supporting the Army and Special Services.  When I returned earlier this year, I was really surprised to see how much it has grown. It’s really a massive change.

Why do you think defense agencies are using Android apps and devices more frequently today?

Henderson: The fact that Android is an open architecture makes app development much easier to accomplish and manage. It also means that Android integrates particularly well with many applications, as well as voice and Bluetooth. The open architecture, when combined with good security features implemented, makes it a great platform for many types of applications and use cases, including on the battlefield.

One of the best examples is the Android Tactical Assault Kit (ATAK), which was developed for the Android platform and designed to enable optimum situational awareness and team coordination. For example, you can give every soldier on your team a device with ATAK installed and a tactical radio. That allows the troops to see each other, draw out geofences to see enemy forces, and engage in mission planning. It’s so successful that it is being adopted by some civilian agencies. It can be extremely useful for everything from border security to anti-terrorism. 

Android has always prioritized security, but it seems to be reaching even a higher level recently. Is that the case?

Henderson: Definitely. Android has aggressively been adding security features and certifications to help prevent unauthorized applications from running and hackers from being able to maliciously modify authorized applications. There are many advances, but let’s focus on two.

First, since it became certified under FIDO2 in February, Android devices can now be used as two-factor authentication devices. In other words, users can use their Android devices to authenticate to a variety of services by fingerprint readers or cameras on their devices or FIDO security keys.

As for the DoD itself, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) has been working on the SHARE (Secure Handhelds on Assured Resilient networks at the tactical Edge) program. The goal is to improve security of Android devices by increasing the level of security available in each device. DARPA also just AWARDED a $21.4 million contract to develop an even more secure version of Android for use by federal agencies. 

You mentioned ATAK as an example of a program that has really embraced Android. Are there others?

Henderson: Yes, there are many. The Army’s Nett Warrior, is a great example. It allows troops to have good situational awareness during combat operations which, in turn, allows for faster and better decision-making. Another example is KILSWITCH ((Kinetic Integrated Low-Cost Software Integrated Tactical Combat Handheld). It’s an Android app generally used by the Marine Corps and Navy personnel on Android tablets to coordinate actions both on the battlefield and in the air. These are just a couple of examples. There are more Android-specific apps that may provide a lot of value for defense.

A new version of the Android operating system is due soon. What advances can agencies expect to see?

Henderson: There is a lot to look forward to. One is Dark Theme, which basically allows users to extinguish all lights on the system and takes the screen down to a minimum NIT (brightness) rating for use in environments where operators can’t be detected. The operating system also is getting privacy enhancements. One will prevent tracking users via apps, MAC addresses and IMEI data; and another removes the peer-to-peer file application, which helps prevent data from being transferred to other devices. “Scoped Storage” will more efficiently manage what storage apps can do or leverage, and there is also a new feature to monitor connection speed and latency. Many defense users use LTE to communicate via portable antennas that communicate with vehicles, so the ability to monitor and warn you if you’re starting to lose a connection or it’s getting below a certain level could be very useful.

What advice do you have for defense agencies considering greater adoption of Android?

Henderson: Prepare for a learning curve because it’s different from other mobile operating systems. But once you’re on board, there is so much you can do. Look for applications and uses that take advantage of the open source nature of the operating system, as well as its unique features.

And when it comes to the devices that will be used, look for features that are important to your mission, especially the security capabilities offered.  For example, device access should be limited to authorized users to protect critical data, the hardware itself, and access to additional corporate resources. Data security features, such as encryption at rest and in motion help to prevent data loss and network security is important, particularly when remote workers use vulnerable public Wi-Fi. For devices that are lost or stolen, enterprise IT should be able to perform a remote lock-down or drive wipe to eliminate loss.