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Secret Service Plans Android Purchase Despite Other Agencies' Troubles

Secret Service agents watch as Air Force One departs in April.

Secret Service agents watch as Air Force One departs in April. // LM Otero/AP

The Secret Service expects to communicate in the field during crises using Android-based Samsung smartphones in conjunction with the company's security software, according to plans for the purchase of up to 2,000 “Knox” licenses. The move comes despite other national security agencies’ troubles with the service and Android devices.

Contract papers published by the agency, part of the Homeland Security Department, explain that in order to “ensure continuous operation in the event of an emergency, a secure operating system is needed for existing Samsung smartphones to assist with device management, applications, and [advanced virtual private network] level policy."

The Dec. 3 documents add that the Defense Information Systems Agency, the Pentagon’s information technology support wing, has endorsed Knox for future deployment, “noting in their Security Technical Implementation Guide that Samsung Knox meets the requirements of Mobile Operating System Security Readiness Guide.”

But Samsung devices are currently causing headaches for DISA.

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that DISA has been frustrated with the delivery of a ready-to-use Samsung device loaded with Knox's security features. "We understand the technology challenges each of our vendors must work with respect to their products being market ready and will continue to work closely with each of them," a DISA spokeswoman told the Journal.

One day earlier, Pentagon spokesman Damien Pickart told Nextgov in an email, "During the transition period [to a departmentwide mobile management system] DISA is not provisioning new iOS/Android users on the existing server. We are delaying provisioning of those devices until the [mobile management] environment is ready in Jan 2014." Some military contract analysts say popular consumer-brand devices, including Samsung phones, may not be suited for real-word activation in the trenches yet.

The Secret Service purchase plans detail the agency’s mobile security needs and Knox’s capacity to meet those needs. Among the specifications listed are the ability to quarantine apps, support smartcards, remotely control firewalls, retrieve audit logs over the air, and revoke an agent's permission to configure or download apps. 

Earlier this year, a sister DHS component, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, chose iPhones over Android-based phones, like Samsung devices, because changes to the Android operating system are harder to detect.

Apparently, even Apple protections are not up to snuff for the man the Secret Service is responsible for protecting. President Obama, during remarks before a young audience last week, bemoaned, "I am not allowed, for security reasons, to have an iPhone." 

The Secret Service did not respond to a request for comment.

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