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Army Readies Mobile App Store

DOD unit works with Apple, Google, and others to put better mobile technology into the hands of soldiers.

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The Army will launch its mobile application store, the Army Marketplace, as soon as mid-November, according to Michael McCarthy, operations director of the Army Brigade Modernization Command's Mission Command Complex.

The Army is leading the way for the Department of Defense's evolving smartphone and mobile device strategy, and one effort, a project called Connecting Soldiers to Digital Applications (CSDA), which McCarthy leads, has played a key research role at every step, assessing and piloting everything from iPhones to Android devices to transport technologies and protective silicon covers for phones.

CSDA was created in 2009 by the Army Capabilities Integration Center and then-Army CIO Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Sorenson. The project team has spent the last two years doing market research, managing pilots, and even developing apps as part of an effort that McCarthy characterizes as aiming "to determine if it's viable to put smartphone technology in the hands of every soldier in the Army."

Mobility is one of Department of Defense CIO Teri Takai's top priorities. In an interview earlier this week, Takai said that members of the military are pushing for "access to the latest and greatest devices." She noted that the DOD is aggressively working on tackling security issues associated with mobile devices, and rattled off several pilots across the military on which she's been keeping an eye.

[ What kind of apps will the military use? Perhaps one of these 10 Great Android Apps For Collaboration. ]

The Army has been at the fore of that work. In August, CIO Susan Lawrence announced that the Army was testing an "iPad-like device" and would begin deploying it as soon as security needs are met. Numerous other tests are also underway.

At the center of many of these efforts has been CSDA, whose goal is to help the Army make fully informed decisions about what technology to buy or allow and when it should to move beyond pilots and pull the trigger on larger mobile device deployments.

Security is likely the paramount piece of CSDA's research, and is one of the largest continuing concerns. "We want to make sure we're not giving a soldier a tool that will put them at risk," McCarthy said. "We have to be able to harden the OS and the device itself so that we can operate all the way to classified networks and use the phone to operate mission command systems." Throughout its security research, CSDA has worked with and leveraged lessons learned by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the National Security Agency, and the Defense Information Systems Agency.

CSDA is looking at three separate levels of security for mobile devices: the operating system itself, device security, and authentication and user identification. Among the ideas being tossed around is the possibility of multi-level authentication that includes multiple types of biometrics, including fingerprint, face recognition, and voice recognition, depending on the classification level.

Other issues currently being worked through include the transport layer, in particular how to establish a safe and secure cellular wireless environment regardless of the infrastructure already in place on the back-end.

CSDA's research has turned up numerous interesting problems that are likely unique to the Army, and interesting ways to solve them. For example, soldiers often wear gloves in the field, but most gloves interfere with the operation of mobile device touch screens, so CSDA tracked down gloves that don't need to be removed in order to use touch screens.

On other fronts, tests with iPads indicated that the form factor was too large for dismounted soldiers, and so CSDA sees smaller Android tablets as a better fit. As to "ruggedizing" mobile devices, $10 silicon skins give "more than adequate protection," McCarthy said. CSDA is even assessing solar batteries to keep phones running for weeks.

One recent project where CSDA has had some input is a joint project between Google and George Mason University to create a more secure wireless platform running the Android operating system. The National Security Agency is currently working to certify that technology, and NIST is also involved. The Army has also been testing iOS. "We're continuing to get iOS builds," he says, noting that Apple is working on some security features that the Army has pushed for.

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