Feds, Ahmadinejad security detail at UN face communication issues

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Bebeto Matthews/AP

Smartphone apps providing temporary secure lines of communications may solve trust and compatibility problems at future high-profile events.

If U.S. authorities must convey a threat against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s to his bodyguards when he speaks on Wednesday at the United Nations, both sides may have trouble quickly connecting without compromising each other’s secure communications, public safety experts say.

Tensions between the two factions stem from suspicions that Iran is covering up a nuclear weapons program and that the united States and Israel are hacking into Iranian networks.

When it comes to linking computer systems, “the trust levels between the Iranians and the United States are very low at this point. It goes both ways,” said David Kahn, chief executive officer of Covia Labs, a software developer that provides first responders with communications technology.

Federal agents “need to be able to communicate with his security detail when he’s in New York” for the UN General Assembly meeting by calling, text messaging, and location tracking, he said. But U.S. officials also need to restrict connectivity to ensure “they haven’t made a hole that will allow Iranians to know what they are doing when they try to protect President Obama.”

Because of this obstacle, “they just don’t communicate much at all,” Kahn said.

Homeland Security Department databases show that in 2011 DHS awarded Covia a $100,000 grant to design an app to allow public safety officials to speak with each other on incompatible mobile devices, during situations such as this. DHS has not funded deployment yet and the tool will not be in use on Wednesday, Kahn said.

Many federal government mobile devices operate on different frequencies than state, local and foreign law enforcement communication systems.

For example, in 2011, when the Foothill-De Anza Community College District Police Department in California was preparing for a visit by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, officers anticipated protests. But their equipment could not communicate with State Department or Scotland Yard mobile devices. Several community groups allege the UK dignitary committed war crimes during the Iraq War.

Each organization’s officers had smartphones, however, so Covia offered its app at no cost to test exchanging text messages and photographs tagged with global positioning system coordinates. The software worked regardless of differences between various devices’ hardware and operating systems. And it only granted temporary login credentials to authorities from out of town so that local police could cutoff access after the event.

“It was a fantastic tool to allow us to bridge the communications gap across the agencies,” college police department chief Ron Levine said. He sent officers email and text message invitations containing a link to download the app. “From the control panel, we can regulate how long that individual is part of the operation,” Levine explained.

Kahn said, “The use case is amazingly parallel to the Ahmadinejad visit.” There was a protest at the Blair event but it wound up smaller than the riot that ensued during an earlier college visit by former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who also was accused of war crimes. The community college police expect to use the app again when former President Bill Clinton stays in town for three days this December.

Covia also helped develop communications software for U.S. warfighters aiding Afghanis, some of whom have a chilly relationship with the United States. Under a two-year agreement with DHS and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the labs provided software for military and public safety mobile devices.  

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the war during which some allege Tony Blair committed war crimes.

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