New Smartphone will Triumph Battlefield

Photo illust US Army, smartphone

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How do you translate the powerful consumer technology of smartphones into something that can be useful and secure on the battlefield? Soldiers need something better and more secure than today’s smartphones that rely on passwords and fingerprint sensors. The main issue is that those soldiers often have to hide their faces, their eyes and their fingers.

The soldier identification solution could be a prototype device that was recently showcased by Maj. Nikolaus Ziegler, military deputy at the Emerging Technologies Directorate of the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), the information technology branch of the Department of Defense. He helped develop the prototype because consumer-grade phones only have a certain level of security and a hassle to unlock in the battlefield.

Another problem is the gas mask, which protects against nuclear, biological and chemical threats, and blocks facial recognition.

“There need to be additional contextual and biometric factors that allow the device to validate who you are,” he said.

According to, the new prototype meets a particular set of requirements. It allows graduated levels of security depending on a soldier’s clearance; it improves on a simple passcode or thumbprint for security; and it allows a variety of factors to serve as evidence that the phone’s owner is, indeed, holding the device.

With this new technology, which DISA is calling “Assured Identity,” the phone will watch everything it can about its owner in order to constantly confirm that it’s in the right hands.

Ziegler said he was initially part of a group that asked Apple to build a military version of its first iPhone, with additional features to make it more rugged and more secure. The company refused, he said, citing too small a market opportunity. Even including every active-duty American soldier, the market for such a device is only a couple of million people. In a reversal of roles, the DOD now hopes to essentially sell some of the technology it’s developing to a manufacturer like Google, Samsung or some other company. The hope is that a company will then mass-produce phones with similar security features, so that the department can buy them at an affordable price for its personnel. 

In recent years, biometrics has emerged in consumer electronics as an alternative to passwords. Fingerprints and even now face scans have become routine parts of the day-to-day of millions of people who use Apple and Samsung smartphones.

But that technology has also come with fresh privacy concerns about just what happens to biometric information. 

The DOD smartphone takes biometric security to a previously unseen level. It combines everything from the places a person habitually visits and their most common connections to Wi-Fi networks to the calls they regularly make, and then combines that data with biometrics like the patterns of their strides to build a “trust score” that keeps the phone unlocked. If another person grabs the phone and walks off, the distinct pattern of his or her walk would change the trust score in just a few strides.

The question remains how the soldiers will accept this technology that challenges their privacy.