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DHS Wants Boeing to Test a Brain Chip in Firm’s Self-Destructing 'Black' Spyphone

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The Department of Homeland Security is funding a Boeing company to create a "brain chip" for its self-destructing Black smartphone that could be adapted for any device, DHS officials say.

The technology powering the devices potentially could identify the user’s walking style, for example. Officials would be alerted if the gait does not match the authorized user’s walk – a red flag the phone might have fallen into the wrong hands, officials said. 

The "secret sauce" of the mobile device is a so-called neuromorphic computer chip that simulates human learning, Vincent Sritapan, the program manager for DHS' mobile device security program, told Nextgov.

Gait recognition -- driven by the phone's accelerometer, GPS and the chip -- is but one of many kinds of continuous ID verification intended to tighten access controls on mobile devices.   

Boeing and HRL Laboratories, a software firm jointly owned by Boeing and General Motors, are partnering under a DHS project worth $2.2 million over 2.5 years. 

The companies "pretty much are leveraging user behavior information" from data gathered by sensors found on any standard consumer smartphone, Sritapan said. Those feelers could include microphones, cameras and touchpads, he added. The artificial intelligence could help agencies determine, “Are you who you say you are, and do we give you access to enterprise resources like email?” he said.

Homeland Security chose the Boeing Black for experimentation, because the company was willing to embed the chip into its device, Sritapan said.

"I would call this a high-risk, high-reward type of project," he added. "If successful, this technology can go into any device the manufacturers are willing to integrate it with" and would meet military, DHS and other federal agency information security specifications. 

Referring to the Black as "the test body," he said the government purchased the brand for "specific uses," such as secure voice calls. 

Smartphone as Test Tube

It remains to be seen whether DHS itself will buy brain chip-embedded Blacks for operations in the field. If the chip is successful at the end of a 2-year research and development period, DHS and Boeing will share the cost of a 6-month pilot program, Sritapan said. 

State Department staffers apparently plan to or are currently using the Black.

"Boeing's team will provide a two-consecutive day Discovery Workshop that includes a Boeing Black product overview, technical deep dives and a security requirements analysis," department officials said in a solicitation for a Boeing Black Secure Voice Workshop released Monday. 

Other players in the military-grade smartphone space include the similarly-named Blackphone made by Silent Circle, an encrypted communications provider co-founded by the inventor of PGP encryption and a former Navy Seal. Android-based Samsung smartphones running the firm’s Knox security software are another option for Pentagon components. 

Defense Department Chief Information Officer Terry Halvorsen has previously said DOD plans to test top-secret smartphones in the fall. 

The smartphone AI under development also would continuously track unusual digital transactions, like an app meddling with the operating system or a spike in network traffic, DHS officials said.

MIT Technology Review describes the way neuromorphic chips understand the world as basically cognition: "Like the neurons in your own brain, those on HRL’s chip adjust their synaptic connections when exposed to new data. In other words, the chip learns through experience."

Their low-power consumption makes the chips especially attractive for smartphones that sap batteries, experts say. 

Last fall, HRL Laboratories test-piloted a miniature drone with a Defense-funded prototype neuromorphic chip inside. The unmanned aircraft learned to recognize three different rooms it had never entered before by memorizing their wall patterns.

A Black-Blackberry Connection?

The phone in which the thinking-chip will be tested is straight out of a James Bond movie. The Black completely erases itself if it detects human or technical tampering. It looks like a common, touchscreen Android smartphone, but the hardware and software inside can be custom-tailored to an agency’s or company's specific needs. In the DHS model, the hidden innards will consist of the neuromorphic chip and associated software. 

Government smartphone stalwart BlackBerry – stepping back from device production – announced last year it will provide software services for Black. BlackBerry this month bought Good Technology, a mobile security software provider widely used in the public sector. Good and BlackBerry combined represented 19 percent of the $1.4 billion mobile management software sector last year. 

On Tuesday, Boeing officials said in an emailed statement, "Boeing has developed a secure, mobile solution that is designed to meet the needs of defense and security customers. Due to customer sensitivities, we cannot disclose who is currently using the device or considering a purchase."

(Image via bestfoto77/ Shutterstock.com)

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