Center for Strategic Communication

Photo: U.S. Army

For the Army, using Android smartphones now would be the equivalent of driving a soft-skinned Humvee through the mountains of Afghanistan. That’s why the Pentagon wants to strengthen its soldiers’ mobile devices security with a program called “Mobile Armour,” which will protect against cyber-threats like enemy breaches, virus infections, spear-phishing attempts or malicious apps. It’s the new step in the Army’s star-crossed two-decade-long quest to provide its soldiers with better tools to communicate in the battlefield.

Invicea, a cyber-security firm, announced today in a press release that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the U.S. Army Research Laboratory have awarded the company a multi-year $21.4 million contract to expand the project dubbed “Mobile Armour,” with the goal of enhancing security on the Army’s smartphones. Invicea will have four years to develop a hardened version of Google’s popular Android operating system to ensure mobile security on the battlefield.

The Virginia-based firm has already been working on an initial version of this technology and says it’s currently testing more than 3,000 Android powered phones and tablets in Afghanistan. According to the company, “based on this early success,” the Pentagon has decided to expand the project’s scope with this new contract award.

“The investment by Darpa and the U.S. Army in the Mobile Armour project demonstrates the critical need for secure mobility,” Anup Ghosh, founder and CEO of Invicea and former Darpa program manager said in a statement. “They must be able to trust that these platforms are secure.”

There aren’t many details on how Invicea plans to lock-down soldiers’ smartphones, but Ghosh told SecurityWeek that they will team up with other firms and universities to put encryption, application control and similar enhancements into Mobile Armour. According to eWeek, the firm has a two-fold approach to strengthen security on existing Android devices: ensuring that only white-listed apps run on the devices and developing a system to detect and limit cyber-attacks on those apps. The goal is to put dangerous applications into secure virtualized environments that will isolate possible threats – an approach the company refers to as “containerization-based.”

“The next stage is protecting the Android operating system on the device from inbound cyber threats as they are targeted by adversaries,” Ghosh told SecurityWeek.

How successful this new project will be remains to be seen. The Army’s issues with smartphones and high-tech have a long, well-documented history and even highly touted programs have fizzled in the past. One of the most infamous examples is Nett Warrior, a program that was supposed to equip soldiers with a wearable 10-pound system made of sensors, computers, radios and mapping devices. It was suspended almost a year ago and it’s unclear if it’s just on hold or dead.