The Future of Military IT: Gait Biometrics, Software Nets, and Photon Communicators

DISA director Lt. Gen. Alan Lynn talks about the tech he’s eyeing, some of which is barely out of the theoretical realm.

Tomorrow’s soldiers will wield encrypted devices that unlock to their voices, or even their particular way of walking, and communicate via ad-hoc, software-defined networks that use not radio waves but light according to Lt. Gen. Alan Lynn, who leads the Defense Information Systems Agency, the U.S. military’s IT provider. On Tuesday, Lynn talked about next-generation technologies that DISA is looking into, some of which are barely experimental today.

Here are few of the key areas:

Biometric Access

Forget thumbprint unlock screens for phones and communications equipment. Tomorrow’s next-generation biometric identifiers are related to the data that soldiers create through their activity. That could include everything from the way that a soldier walks, to the way she holds her phone, to places that she’s been.

“In the future, we see that the systems you carry on you, developing information on you and taking information from you,” said Lynn. “Your walk is as individual as your thumbprint. Why is that important? Well, if you are in warfighting, oftentimes you wear gloves, oftentimes you wear masks…you can’t use a lot of the biometrics you would normally use. But your gait, your walk, that’s going to be there. We think that’s an important part of our future for identity.”

DISA will also authenticate identity based on patterns of life. Where you go says a lot about you, and your phone tracks it. Statistically speaking, a large enough dataset of locations and times is as strong an identity as many common physical features.

In 2013, MIT researchers Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye and César A. Hidalgo showed that with just four data points related to time and space, it’s possible to de-anonymize an individual cell phone user — in other words, to verify an identity.

“You go to your workplace; you go home; you notice your phone already registers those two places? Because it knows where you’re going. Those are patterns of life. Those are things that can be imported into the device,” said Lynn.

Of course, not all of these indicators are created equal. That’s why the future of biometric identification is based on combining multiple indicators to achieve a composite score, said Lynn. “When you start getting all of that data…your identity score goes up.” That will determine how much access you have to different portions of the network, he said.

Software-Defined Networks and Greynets

Network attacks are a pain in 2017, particularly when intrusive malware can hop around even inside well-protected environments. That won’t be the case forever; networks are migrating away from physically linked systems to virtual networks that exist only in software.

“Imagine a world where, if a network is being attacked, you drop all the people on that network onto a duplicate, replicated network,” says Lynn. That’s the promise of software-defined networks. It’s an idea that’s been around for more than a decade but has only recently hit the mainstream because of improvements and adoptions in cloud architectures.

Lynn compared the coming era of software-defined networking to the wide adoption of frequency-hopping radio during World War II. If an adversary attacks your signal at one frequency, you just move quickly to a new one. The same would work with ad-hoc networks that exist entirely in code. “The future that we’re looking for is virtualized networks that we can hop across. So if you attack one network, you can have it. We just left. Or, if it’s there and we want to use it, it’s a honey pot,” said Lynn.

Another benefit of virtual networks is that it allows the U.S. to “spin up” capability for coalition partners without having to sell or give away lots of equipment, said Lynn.

But wait; how do you encrypt data on a hard drive if your network is virtual? “In the future, what we see is a software-defined network that encrypts and decrypts at the end point,” said Lynn. That would allow data to travel safely along even untrusted networks, a practice called grey networking. “That will be a gamechanger, because we won’t care what the transport is. We’ll use whatever is available,” he said.

DISA has already built a virtual data center for Africa Command, said Lynn.

Light-Based Communication

Forget battlefield Wi-Fi. The future of wireless data transfer isn’t radio but light emitting diodes, also sometimes called Li-FI, a term that comes from its creator, Finnish inventor Harald Hass.

“That’s an innovation that we think might be important to us,” said Lynn.

Li-FI offers a new frontier of data and communication beyond the radio-frequency spectrum, which is increasingly congested. For the military, it also promises a means to send data in a format that can’t be thwarted through conventional electromagnetic warfare techniques. “If someone comes and tries to jam you, they’re jamming [radio frequency], not light,” said Lynn.

The Navy’s SEALs are already looking to incorporate light-based communication and data transfer into dangerous underwater missions via Li-FI, which would be difficult for opposing forces to detect according to U.S. Special Operations Forces Command, or SOCOM.

SOCOM is spearheading a related underwater communication effort, according to Capt. Katherine M. Dolloff, who runs the command’s maritime program executive office. SOCOM wants future SEALs to carry a transmitter attached to a diving apparatus that would send light along a narrow channel of the electromagnetic spectrum, one invisible to the naked eye.

It’s a fast-emerging field called underwater optical communications, related to Li-Fi. “Until recently, efficient, inexpensive, near ultraviolet, or NUV, sources have not been readily available; but the demand for new, high power NUV light-emitting diodes for commercial applications has made their use in underwater applications possible,” notes an October research paper on underwater optical communications by Norman Farr, the principal engineer in applied ocean physics and engineering and his colleagues at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

In 2010, Farr and other Woods Hole researchers demonstrated that it was possible to send data at one, five, and 10 megabits per second using only blue light, 100 meters beneath the surface. Researchers say this might someday help oil equipment on the ocean floor to retain better data-links with offshore drilling rigs, and help undersea oceanographic research drones to send collected data to their mother ships.

When will all of these virtual devices, biometric algorithms, and light-based communication pieces make their way to the battlefield? Lynn says the main obstacle to the deployment of software-defined networks in battle is the time it takes to set them up. “Right now, a virtual router, a virtual server takes, hours to spin up,” he said. It’s a process he wants to accelerate. He’s also looking for better algorithms for biometric identity verification.

As for light-based communication, it has the interest of the entire telecommunications industry. The SOCOM effort to take off in fiscal 201818, according to Dolloff.

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