Manufacturers, including Motorola, Silent Circle and Boeing, are making high-security phones such as Silent Circle's Blackphone, left, and Motorola Solutions AME 2000, bottom, with encrypted voice and text capabilities, and tamper-proof cases. (Motorola)
In a world where the mundane business of government collides with “Mission: Impossible,” there is a niche but growing market for mobile communications that elude detection. While the appeal may be less-than-mainstream so far, in the post-Edward Snowden era more people are taking notice of new ways to talk, text and share under the radar — including federal agencies in the business of secrecy.
The emerging trend of high-security, encrypted devices is a byproduct of a meteoric rise in smart-device offerings, ubiquitous connectivity and near-inescapable surveillance. The resulting interest in options for untraceable on-the-go communications is compounded at least two other factors: a global threat landscape that, according to top intelligence officials, is more complex than ever, and revelations of just how far governments can go in tracking their subjects.
Take, for example, the German government’s recent announcement that it will add to its arsenal of 3,000 encrypted BlackBerry devices fortified with anti-eavesdropping technology from German firm Secusmart. BlackBerry on July 31 announced it would acquire Secusmart; the move comes months after press outlets reported German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s anger at news that the U.S. had tapped her mobile communications.
In the U.S. government, the calls for encrypted mobility are a little different. The demand for devices for official use that are on par with those used in daily life outside the office has spurred an explosion in smartphones and tablets in government offices and in the field. Where feds have lagged in meeting that demand, however, is at the highest levels of security required by agencies, such as parts of the Department of Defense and in the intelligence community.
“What’s changed over the years is how heavily the government is adopting mobility to lead their missions every day,” said Michael Brown, BlackBerry vice president of security product management and research. “The war fighter can take advantage of mobility, getting access to back-end information, whether it’s for logistics to know where colleagues are or it’s communications to be efficient on ground or around the world. We’re seeing a heightened need for security around those conversations because it’s high-value information, and that’s shifted how people interact with technology. And that’s changing the demand in government use.”
It used to be that options for such high-security devices were limited, mostly to DoD’s Secure Mobile Environment-Portable Electronic Device, or SME-PED. Despite being available for years, the SME-PED saw only limited adoption since its arrival on the market.
The National Security Agency “made a last-ditch effort for classified data and voice access; that’s what the SME-PED was all about,” said Scott Rover, director of secure mobility solutions at Motorola, which produces the encrypted AME 2000 smartphone. “It didn’t take off because the iPhone was released around the same time, and users didn’t like the bulky design compared to the sexy new iPhone.”
Today, “sexy” could describe most of the high-security smartphones up for grabs, as could “familiar,” thanks to the Pentagon’s push to customize existing operating systems and platforms — mostly Android — for DoD-grade security. The AME 2000, unveiled at last year’s RSA security conference, is one of them. It combines a commercial off-the-shelf device with software-based encryption as well as a hardware-encrypted chip called the CRYPTR micro, which looks like a microSD card.
Like the AME 2000, Boeing’s Black is also aimed at the government enterprise market. According to Reuters, the Black not only encrypts calls, but any attempt to open the casing results in the phone deleting all data and rendering the device inoperable.
Boeing’s encrypted smartphone “delivers unique embedded hardware and software security solutions, operating system policy controls, and compatibility with leading mobile device management systems,” a company representative said in a statement. Boeing declined to be interviewed.
Perhaps the biggest splash is being made by the Blackphone, the high-security smartphone from Silent Circle, which also offers encrypted voice and text capabilities. Unlike the previous two options, the Blackphone does not necessarily target the government market. But there’s plenty of federal interest in the device, which runs on the company’s PrivatOS operating system and offers secure messaging and file transfer of videos, photos, PDFs — “whatever you need,” according to Vic Hyder, Silent Circle chief revenue officer and a former Navy SEAL.
Hyder said so far there are “a few government customers” testing out Blackphone, including some that are looking at it as a potential replacement for some BlackBerry devices. But Silent Circle’s app-based offerings mean that encrypted communications can be used on essentially any smartphone.
“There are government agencies that are using these to protect some of their assets and sources giving them street-level information. For example, an individual reporting back to an FBI or [Defense Intelligence Agency] agent out of Yemen can’t talk to that agent using English via a cellphone without fear of tripping alarms and getting a knock on their door,” Hyder said. “It protects communications, but on top of that it increases the flow of information immensely. Before, you had to wait for your guy to move to a secure location where speaking English wouldn’t trip any alarms. Now he’s able to do it right on the street, taking videos or pictures, providing up-to-date information: ‘This is what’s happening right now.’”
That kind of intelligence is at the heart of what agencies like the DIA, NSA and National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, in addition to DoD, are trying to do as they work to capitalize on mobile technology and information-sharing. The complementary efforts together comprise a better-connected defense and intelligence enterprise, one that is enabled by the rise in high-security mobility.
“What we’re trying to accomplish is really how it all started,” Rover noted. “Encryption started as a cipher in an open letter that you could only decode with [the ability to] decipher. The [government] has tried to keep coverts hidden, but they’re now realizing the need to have them hiding in the open. They need to give them the freedom of movement; it just depends on the technology. That’s the game they’re playing now — how can I be covert in an overt manner? It changes the paradigm of what they can do.”