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NSA's smart phone could become government issue

The Sectéra EdgeThe The Sectéra Edge smartphone. (Photo: General Dynamics)

A new mobile phone specifically designed for the National Security Agency looks like any other commercial smart phone, with a decent-size screen for Web browsing and a full keyboard for data entry.

But a peek under the hood shows that the phone belies its bureaucratic program name (the Secure Mobile Environment-Portable Electronic Device), with NSA having adopted a familiar commercial form. John Grimes, the Defense Department's chief information officer, called the phone a "transformational" product that provides top-level leaders with voice and data as well as access to Defense's classified Internet -- all of which fits in the palm of your hand.

The NSA smart phone was as one of the top five innovative information technology projects that Grimes recognized on Nov. 1 as part of the Defense Department Chief Information Officers Awards. General Dynamics, which developed the phone under an $18 million contract, delivered 60 of the devices to NSA last year for testing.

More are expected to be delivered to the agency after a Defense panel certified the General Dynamics Sectera Edge phone on Oct. 6 for use on the department's networks. Between 30,000 to 100,000 smart phones could be delivered to the Defense, Homeland Security and State departments and to every state governor as well.

The smart phone can access Defense's unclassified networks. Since separate devices are required to access classified and unclassified networks, the agency essentially had to stuff two smart phones -- one for classified networks and another for unclassified -- into the body of one, said Matt Quick, chief of secure wired and wireless communications at NSA.

NSA also wanted a smart phone capable of operating on mobile networks worldwide, he said. That required the agency to provide users with plug-in radio modules capable of operating on the code division multiple access cellular networks that operate in the United States and the Global System for Mobile Communications standard used by AT&T and T-Mobile in this country, as well as most mobile network operators worldwide.

Security requirements to use the smart phone on a classified network meant the agency had to develop a sophisticated algorithm capable of fitting into the phone's memory, which boasts 128 megabytes of flash memory and 64 megabytes in the unclassified module and 64 megabytes of flash and RAM in the classified module.

The smart phone offers a full range of features found in any commercial smart phone, such as the suite of Microsoft Mobile applications, which include e-mail, a Web browser, chat software and viewers for Excel, PowerPoint and PDF files.

All this functionality comes in a 12-ounce package that measures 3.2 inches wide by 4.9 inches long by 1.3 inches deep, which makes the NSA smart phone much fatter but only marginally larger than the biggest BlackBerry on the market today, the BlackBerry Bold.

Quick said L3 Communications is also working on its version of the smartphone under another $18 million contract, but has lagged behind General Dynamics in development. He expects the company will deliver a certifiable product. "We want the L3 phone because we like competition," Quick said.

Besides Defense, NSA also has an agreement with Homeland Security and the State Department to use the secure smart phone on their networks.

The General Dynamics phone is expected to carry a $4,000 price tag, but Quick pointed out that the price actually was a deal. The Sectera Edge features built in High Assurance Internet Protocol Encryptor Interoperability Specification Functionality, which is used for communications on classified networks. If bought as a separate device, it would cost$10,000, he said.

To perform all the tasks bundled in the Sectera Edge, a user also would have to buy two cell phones and two computers for communications on separate voice and data classified networks, making the all-in-one secure phone more of a bargain, Quick said.

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