General Dynamics eyes government-level security on smartphones

Android phones could be approved for access to classified networks later this year

General Dynamics is looking to bring U.S. government-level security to consumer smartphones, allowing organizations to benefit from the type of strong data protection only available on expensive and clunky mobile terminals.

The company is already well versed in this area, as a supplier of one such clunky terminal, the the Sectera Edge. But the acquisition in September last year of Open Kernel Labs, a virtualization software provider, is propelling this new push to extend that security to consumer devices.

The goal is to secure an off-the-shelf smartphone so that it can make encrypted voice calls, support secure email and web browsing, and securely access classified and unclassified networks, including the U.S. government's SIPRNET and NIPRNET.

For organizations that require such high levels of security, it means a wider and cheaper selection of handsets and the possibility of extending security to lower levels of users. For the users themselves, it means a more attractive phone with more modern technology that's probably easier to use.

At this week's Mobile World Congress in Barcelona., the company is demonstrating two devices running different applications in its initial "GD Protected" product family.

The first is a Samsung Galaxy S III running custom "GD Protected" firmware, which builds on top of Samsung's "KNOX" security platform.

The new firmware is sent over the air by General Dynamics and is a hardened version of the Android OS with additional security measures. It includes root certificates from General Dynamics that replace those from Samsung, and mean that any subsequent operating system changes need to be signed by General Dynamics.

During a demonstration in Barcelona, the company showed the revised two-factor sign-on process for the device: successful authentication from a government Common Access Card (CAC) inserted into a Bluetooth card reader and a PIN code on the phone itself.

Once unlocked, the phone was restricted to approved apps, which included an encrypted voice calling mode than runs over the data network.

The first phone that will support the GD Protected software in this configuration will be the Samsung Galaxy S IV, which is due to be announced in March. GD Protected will initially be available for "sensitive but unclassified" communications in the second quarter. The company is hoping to attain U.S. Government security certification for classified communications in the third quarter.

A second handset was running two versions of Android, one for consumer use and one for business. The consumer side is completely open and acts just like a conventional cell phone whereas the business side is more secure but restricted. Data is firewalled between the two sides so, for example, data from the business side cannot be accessed or copied over to the consumer side.

With the two systems, General Dynamics is offering a slightly different user experience. The first approach, installing new firmware, offers a slightly higher level of security but at the expense of user freedom. The second approach, with the dual instances of Android, comes with complete freedom on the consumer side of the phone.

The systems were being demonstrated in Barcelona as the U.S. Department of Defense published its plan to equipment up to 600,000 mobile device users in the organization with "secure classified and protected unclassified mobile solutions" that are based on commercial off-the-shelf products.

Martyn Williams covers mobile telecoms, Silicon Valley and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is martyn_williams@idg.com

Tags MWCGeneral Dynamicsconsumer electronicssecurityAndroidsmartphones

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