The Pentagon Is Exploring New Ways to Isolate Its Networks

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Three companies have already received multimillion-dollar contracts to explore new ways to protect the data flowing through the military’s IT systems.

The Pentagon is investing millions of dollars in research to improve the department’s air-gapping methods, which would better protect the sensitive data flowing between military IT systems.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency on Wednesday awarded General Electric a $8.6 million contract to prototype hardware and software designs that would help keep highly sensitive data physically isolated from other parts of the Pentagon’s tech infrastructure. The award was made under the Guaranteed Architecture for Physical Security program, which aims to improve the department’s physical IT security controls.

Specifically, the program is focused on securing “high risk” data flows between the Pentagon’s classified and unclassified IT systems, and allowing officials to better monitor the movement of information, officials said in the original solicitation

The Pentagon relies on a series of “air gaps” within its IT infrastructure to ensure information can’t inadvertently cross over from one system to another. The gaps serve as physical breaks between different systems, ensuring highly classified IT remains separated from less sensitive pieces of tech.

According to DARPA, the department uses a combination of technical tools and human analysts to regulate the flow of information across those barriers, which are often retrofitted onto existing IT systems. But as the Pentagon’s tech ecosystem becomes increasingly complex, DARPA worries those controls aren’t scalable or reliable enough to ensure data doesn’t leap the air gap and fall into the wrong hands.

“The ability to verifiably and securely establish communication between multiple security levels is inherently too complex to implement for many [Defense Department] platforms where such communication is desired,” officials said. If the GAPS program is successful, “the barrier to safely enable these high-risk transactions will be substantially lowered,” they added.

Participants in the program will explore novel hardware and software strategies for air-gapping systems down to the individual computer chip. In the future, developers would be able to build those physical controls directly into new IT systems instead of adding them after the tech is already are deployed, leading to significant improvements in their efficiency and effectiveness.

Ultimately, the improved system architectures would make the Pentagon less reliant on clunky digital moats, and also allow personnel share data faster and more reliably, DARPA said. 

GE is the third vendor to join the GAPS program: DARPA awarded Galois Inc. a $7.3 million contract on Aug. 27 and inked a $12.7 million deal with Northrop Grumman in May. According to the solicitation, the agency plans to invest a total of $54.4 million in the program.