Turning a Blind Eye to Unauthorized Mobile Devices

March 29, 2012
By George Seffers

It's not always easy to enforce the U.S. military's rules on the use of mobile devices, said John Wilcox, chief information officer and director of command, control, communications and computers, U.S. Special Operations Command.

"To give dirty laundry, quite frankly, I know I have some devices that probably shouldn't be out there. Sometimes you want to look the other way, because you want to give the warfighter what they need; other times you want to say, what's that going to do for this network and for the connections back to the [Global Information Grid]?" he said.

Wilcox made the comments while hosting a mobile communications panel at the TechNet Land Forces Southwest conference in Tucson, Arizona. He illustrated the point about the military falling behind by recalling a comment made by Microsoft's Steve Balmer years ago. He recalled Balmer saying that, "The military better get used to it, because we were no longer the leader in this fundamental area." He added that, "Quite frankly, we fell behind."

Wilcox kicked off the panel discussion by saying he wants one mobile device to use for both peacetime and wartime operations. "When does a brigade combat team commander's silver smartphone in garrison become a warfighter's camouflaged smartphone in theater? Or does it? I'm not sure it does. From my perspective, I would like to see a device you use in garrison, you get alerted by, you plan with, you deploy with-all the same phone, never changes."

He also voiced a preference for less expensive technologies than can be fielded more rapidly. "Oh, by the way, I'd rather buy 25 of those $200, $300, $400 phones than to buy one $10,000 or $15,000 hardened-to-the-max computer that takes five years or 10 years to be fielded," he said.

To illustrate the capability mobile devices offer for national security purposes, Wilcox touted an upcoming U.S. State Department event that he described as a "mobile manhunt." "The Tag Challenge is on Saturday. They're going to post pictures of five suspects on the Internet, and the task is to get pictures of all five suspects. The challenge is that one's in London, one's in D.C., one's in New York, one's in Stockholm and one's in Slovakia, and oh by the way, the time limit's 12 hours. How are you going to do that? Only by using mobile communications. This is the ultimate man-hunting. This is what we're doing around the globe today looking for bad guys," he said.

He cited a similar experiment by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in recent years in which they place red balloons in multiple locations and asked people to find them. "It will be interesting on Saturday to see if mobile communications and social communications will allow us to manhunt, which is obviously a core task of the military," Wilcox said.

Fellow panelist Jim Young, Army account manager for Google, predicted a world where every soldier will be capable of writing apps for their mobile devices when they need them. "Anybody in the Army at whatever level should be able to create a mobile app, whether it is simplistic or sophisticated."

Orlando Rocafort, supervisory agent with the U.S. Border Patrol, told the audience he once relied on his personal cell phone to get himself out of a tough situation when his government-issued communications equipment wasn't up to the job. Rocafort was tracking potential drug traffickers in a remote area when he stepped in large hole, possibly an animal den and injured himself. Knowing potentially dangerous people were in the area, he tried to radio for help but found that his line-of-sight equipment couldn't broadcast past the surrounding mountains. Using his mobile device, he was able to call his fellow agents for rescue.

Steven Sprague, chief executive officer, Wave Systems Corporation, told the audience that trusted computing is coming to mobile devices, and he received the applause line of the day during the question and answer session. "I would really look to toss the baby out and start again, because the information assurance process today is not working for us," Sprague said.

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