Big Brother can't hang with iOS
June 01, 2011
The Washington Post reports that the government is adopting high tech devices faster than in the past, but is missing a key element to the equation: security. That’s not to say that there isn’t always a security concern when it comes to newer technology, but the devices we’re talking about are wireless in nature, and that’s where things get messy. It’s one thing to go from Windows to OS X, or even the Blackberry to the iPhone, but when we’re dealing with government policies that restrict use of wireless devices for classified work, then you can forget about seeing government Operators using an iPad to take notes during interviews, or snapping pictures of a bad guy with a government-issued iPhone. These are both examples of how the government could be more efficient in terms of how it gets the job done, and how much money could be saved long-term by consolidating devices and materials, but ultimately, examples with little real-world merit.
It’s because devices like the iPhone and iPad, whose AppStore libraries are enormous and already aid thousands of people with work tasks already, make use of programs that haven’t passed scrutiny by government security experts. And even if the apps somehow did pass such scrutiny, the fact that these devices are capable of transmitting data wirelessly means that they’re already banned from use in classified contexts, and why they can’t even enter a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF) where highly classified information is typically handled and kept. That’s why government computers held in a SCIF lack wifi capabilities, and when procured, must have respective hardware removed before going online. And naturally, they can never connect to an open network, for fear of their contents being transmitted to unintended recipients.
And it’s not just wifi that’s the problem, either. Pretty much any device that’s able to record audio, take pictures, or even tether to a desktop to exchange information is a no-go in a SCIF. Which doesn’t leave many devices for consideration outside the staple pad-and-paper.
So for iOS devices, or similar smart phones and tablets, to be used by Shady Land’s most sensitive Operators, several things would need to happen, all of which are highly unlikely:
- Variants of devices would need to be manufactured that do not include hardware like cameras, microphones, wifi transmitters, etc.
- An infrastructure would need to be put in place to push approved apps to all such variant devices.
- Some mechanism would need to be put in place to transfer information between the device and a classified computer, so as to download information from the device to SCIF-housed computers.
Mind you, current-gen devices could be used by Operators that don’t need to enter a SCIF. The only obstacle in this scenario is the determination by some individual that every app utilized by an Operator is without major security concern, such that information gathered by the Operator is not clandestinely exfiltrated from the device wirelessly.
While the Washington Post paints a pretty picture of the government picking up their pace when it comes to high-tech, the reality is a little different, with bureaucratic obstacles in place, and legitimate security concerns slowing down adaptation considerably. The press is quick to point out that the President himself uses an iPad, but it wasn’t long ago that he was required to get a secure Blackberry in order to conduct business. In reality, the iPad he’s using is not intended for use with any classified information, and is likely more of a personal toy than it is a workhorse for national security matters. It’s a shame that such devices can’t be used in classified situations yet, but hopefully someone’s exploring a way for us to get there.