A Wireless Intelligence Community ‘On The Horizon,' Official Says

U.S. Marine Corps / Lance Cpl. Michaela Gregory

Getting there is a matter of appropriately protecting data and tweaking policies to allow for wireless secret- and top-secret networks.

Some wireless devices—phones, tablets, or maybe even smart watches—could soon be welcome inside secure facilities, according to an intel official.

“I think it's inevitable, in terms of the incorporation of wireless, into our community, into our facilities,” Douglas Cossa, the chief information officer for the Defense Intelligence Agency said Thursday. “I mean, when you look at it, look at all the technology you're driving in with through the gate, even what's on your car, your key fob, it's just inevitable that we're going to have to face that.”

And because companies aren’t going to develop technology just for the intelligence community, “we're going to have to adjust our posture and our policies to incorporate that in, and that includes wireless,” Cossa said during a panel at the Department of Defense Intelligence Information System, or DoDIIS, Worldwide Conference in San Antonio, Texas. 

Ultimately, he said, the challenge is in securing data, e.g. encryption, and “tearing down the walls” of command centers and offices built in response to crises. 

“I think we're there. I think this is really just over the horizon where we're going to start incorporating this more as the norm as opposed to the exception,” Cossa said of allowing wireless tech into secure facilities. “But when I think about the power of wireless, I often think about the watch floors that we set up when we have a crisis within DIA.”

Cossa said the agency stood up a center dedicated to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. That involves creating floor plans and layouts, plus installing new computers and equipment “that we have to physically tie into that floor” in a process that could take weeks. 

“I would love the scenario where we could just do that on the fly through a wireless type capability,” he said.

The defense and intelligence communities have been starting to embrace remote and wireless capabilities in recent years, largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the push for maximized telework policies, which meant some workers had to access secret networks remotely. 

“We had people that were at home and we had this mass situation where people needed access to SIPRNet and they needed remote access capabilities,” said Roger Greenwell, the Defense Information Systems Agency’s CIO and director of Ithe Enterprise Integration and Innovation Center.

The agency worked with the National Security Agency to get commercial devices built for classified systems, and to provide mobile phones, tablets, and laptops to employees who need them. 

Additionally, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency has been working to incorporate wireless devices into its new St. Louis campus that is slated to be completed by the end of 2025.

Mark Chatelain, the associate chief information officer for the NGA’s CIO and IT services directorate, said the new facility will have wireless networks for unclassified, secret, and top secret information throughout the building. 

“Again, this is going to be able to allow us to configure our IT in that building, to have analysts bring their portable devices and go from area to area to be able to collaborate, to be able to share information,” he said during the panel discussion of intel and defense CIOs. “They'll be able to use their wireless device to cast up on the screen their thoughts, their processes, and be able to collaborate and things like that.”

Chatelain said this is possible largely because of the enormity of the facility—a 700,000 sq. ft. building in the middle of 100 acres.

“Between that and a number of other measures we put into place, we're very much on our way to having that full wireless capability implemented there.”

There’s also a push within the intelligence community to make computer systems more accessible. 

Jennifer Kron, the deputy CIO for the National Security Agency, said because one in four U.S. workers are considered to have a disability, vendors must take accessibility for IT products and services as seriously as they take cybersecurity. 

“That's a major issue for us,” Kron said, and change is needed “to be fully inclusive of our entire workforce, to work to focus on our diversity and our retention of our workforce, and to be able to make the most and to leverage the capabilities of all of our folks.” 

The agency previously took advantage of a loophole for national security systems in federal legislation that required employees to make IT systems accessible to people with disabilities. But the NSA wants to change that, Kron said during the panel. 

“We are going to be compliant and we have strong support from across the entire IC from the leadership on down now. And we're going to look to you all to help us do that and to make sure that we're baking in our accessibility from the beginning the same way that we've learned to do for security,” she said.