Consumer Smartphones OK'd for Military Use Lack Certain ID Protections

Staff Sgt. Rulberto Qjendismiranda with the U.S. Army's 2nd Battalion 27th Infantry Regiment looks at his mobile phone while aboard a military transport flight.

Staff Sgt. Rulberto Qjendismiranda with the U.S. Army's 2nd Battalion 27th Infantry Regiment looks at his mobile phone while aboard a military transport flight. David Goldman/AP File Photo

Pentagon disclosed security approvals for Apple iOS and BlackBerry 10 mobile devices.

The Pentagon in recent weeks has rapidly green lighted consumer smartphones, including the new iPhone and BlackBerry 10 lines, for military operations -- even though some devices do not yet support required security credentials because, according to Defense Department officials, planning ahead is key to the success of wireless U.S. forces.

The Defense Information Systems Agency on Friday announced the approval of security guidelines for Apple iOS 6 devices, after a previously reported vote early last week. DISA also divulged the details of guidelines for BlackBerry 10 smartphones and BlackBerry PlayBook tablets, which obtained endorsements earlier in the month.

The new version of the BlackBerry, long the sole brand safe enough for federal use, currently is missing a key protection. The latest operating system, Blackberry 10, can't guard emails or sensitive applications using "common access cards.” CAC cards are the standard identification tool for connecting to defense networks, encrypting and decrypting messages, and digitally signing documents.  A memo attached to last week's disclosures states, "BlackBerry OS 10.0 does not support DoD Common Access Card (CAC) functions," including email and website logins. 

An anticipated update, Blackberry 10.1, will be able to verify CAC IDs for employees attempting to email or visit secure sites, the document adds. A third iteration, BlackBerry 10.2, is expected to be capable of validating CAC credentials before letting employees access Intranet sites protected by digital certificates.

Personnel defensewide won't be able to use any of the new gadgets until DISA rolls out a mobile device management system, expected to be purchased this summer, for remotely control device settings. During trial runs only, select employees will connect to defense networks on government-owned iPhones, iPads, and BlackBerry 10 devices, as well as Samsung Knox systems.

The decision to allow BlackBerry 10 electronics onto defense networks without being able to check user CAC credentials was necessary to keep device distribution on schedule, agency officials told Nextgov.

"DISA determined that it was critical to provide Blackberry OS 10 security guidance" for the trials "as soon as practicable for their planning, procurement, testing, and integration purposes. This will enable organizations to more quickly deploy the imminently expected Blackberry OS 10.1, which Blackberry states will provide CAC support," Henry J. Sienkiewicz, the agency’s vice chief information assurance executive, said in an email. 

For now, DISA officials are leaving it up to each Defense organization to judge whether its data will be safe on smartphones that can’t handle CAC authentication. Military components "deploying BlackBerry OS 10.0 devices must set up procedures" for performing a Pentagon-compliant "risk-based assessment of applications prior to application approval and installation," the memo states.

Most commercial mobile devices have trouble reading smartcards to confirm a user’s identity. The gadgets are simply too small to store CAC card readers, according to the Pentagon. So, suppliers have been working with the military to substitute readers with short range communications, such as the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority fare card scanners that unlock turnstiles with a wave of a card, Defense officials said in February. Another credentialing alternative might be micro-SD data storage cards. 

Currently, 600,000 new and older consumer mobile devices are either in testing or operational use defensewide, including about 470,000 BlackBerrys, 41,000 Apple iOS electronics and 8,700 Google Android-based systems, DISA officials said on Friday.