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Android is expected to soon win approval for use on military networks

FORT BLISS, TEXAS -- The Android operating system developed by Google and used in popular smartphones and tablets is expected to win approval for use on military networks that handle information with the Secret classification level by April 2012, Michael McCarthy, director of the Army's smartphone project, told Nextgov.

The operating system is expected to receive certification for use on unclassified Defense networks by the end of the year, he said. McCarthy, who runs the Army's Connecting Soldiers to Digital Applications project from a bunkerlike building on this sprawling base just north of El Paso and the Mexican border, said the Android operating system will meet the National Institutes of Standards and Technology compliance requirements for security in unclassified wireless communications embodied in Federal Information Processing Standard 140-2.

McCarthy also predicted that the Android operating system would win approval from the National Security Agency for use on Secret networks under NSA's Suite B program, which leverages existing federal standards to support commercial wireless products on federal networks.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has been a catalyst for speedy certification of Android, McCarthy said, as the Obama administration wants to include secure commercial products in a planned public safety broadband network. The White House Communications Agency, managed by the Defense Information Systems Agency, also needs secure wireless clients as it eyes development of a secure wireless network, he said.

Young, tech-savvy soldiers are another key driver for the Army to adopt smartphones. McCarthy estimated that between 30 percent and 40 percent of soldiers deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq have purchased their own smartphones and some pay more than $100 a month for airtime.

These personal phones use commercial, not Army networks. In a forecast previewed yesterday by Nextgov, M86 Security Labs reported that employee-owned smartphones pose a serious threat to government networks because their mobile antivirus software has not yet matured.

He said soldier-owned smartphones in deployed units have become so ubiquitous that commanders have had to issue orders stipulating how the devices may or may not be used during operations.

McCarthy acknowledged that he fielded 40 smartphones to a unit in Afghanistan this spring and will supply 20 iPhones, 20 Android phones and 20 Android tablets to another unit slated for deployment to Afghanistan next year. He declined to identify the units for security reasons.

The Apple operating system that powers iPhones and iPads is nine months to a year away from winning NIST certification, McCarthy said. He added that Apple should not expect to receive any significant orders from the Army for its wireless products until it can demonstrate the security of its supply chain. Earlier this month, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said counterfeit computer chips in the Defense Department supply chain -- many from China -- pose a serious threat to national security.

Smartphones don't work well in austere environments that lack a cellular infrastructure. This month, the Army is testing a deployable cellular tower and base station at the service's National Integration Exercise at nearby White Sands Missile Range, N.M. These compact base stations can support broadband data and can hook into Army networks via communications satellites or terrestrial radio networks, McCarthy said.

That test will include roughly 100 smartphones and tablets, but only Android tablets, based on soldiers' preferences, he said. Soldiers prefer the Dell Android tablet, which has a 7-inch screen and can be carried in a cargo pocket of the field uniform pants, according to McCarthy. The iPad, which has 10-inch screen, does not pass the pocket test, he said.

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