The head of the National Security Agency’s information assurance directorate recently discussed the agency’s goals in providing government with secure mobile devices.
Speaking to the Washington, D.C., chapter of the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association here, Debora Plunkett, director of NSA’s Information Assurance, laid out the strategy behind “putting mobile devices in the hands of government users.”
“First and foremost, our whole strategy from a classified mobility perspective is very much focused on commercial solutions for classified [communications],” Plunkett said. “It’s our intent that we would deliver, end-to-end, a solution that is reliant on all commercial components and we believe we can do that.”
The agency is testing concepts, Plunkett said, adding that she often is asked why go “end-to-end commercial?”
“We very strongly believe that, in the absence of our ability to be able to leverage the capacity of industry to deliver security and components that we need, we will not be able to meet the demand signals from our customers,” she said. “So it’s our intent to do just that.”
Plunkett said the “good news” is that the NSA has had “phenomenal partnership and cooperation across industry” in understanding the intricacies of certain capabilities, developing architecture and partnering in testing concepts.
“Partnerships are critically important so [that] we establish that mobile enterprise capability,” she added.
Noting the popularity of smart phones and tablets, Plunkett said users are able to use those devices in the comfort of their homes, but then “come to their work spaces and it’s like… they can’t do a whole lot. And we want to be able to change that.”
A “cultural change” is needed to meet government users’ needs, she said.
In the past, Plunkett said, by the time a device was produced and delivered, it was made obsolete by commercial devices.
“[This] became the poster child, instead, for what we don’t want to do,” she said. “And that is have a very, very long cycle of development, five years to deliver -- millions and millions of dollars to deliver -- and by the time it comes to market it’s been overtaken by technology.”
Plunkett noted the cultural change was the ability to operate in a space where “cell phones today are obsolete in … 12 to 18 months.”
“We’ve got to be able to operate in that same cycle as we’re looking at putting smart devices in the hands of government users,” she said. “We’ve got to be able to move quickly enough such that we can also be able to evaluate those new devices and put them in the hands of users in enough time while those devices are not obsolete.”
Plunkett said this seamless transition will rely on a “cloud” concept, particularly, in the case of customers in hostile environments who can’t afford to waste time after a device is lost.
Instead, she suggested, providing users with a device with the appropriate safeguards in place and nothing stored on it. Using the cloud concept, if a device is lost, it could simply be disconnected from the infrastructure, she said.
Plunkett noted changes to “external dependencies” critical to the ability for the NSA to be successful, such as the degradation of the 2G network, which “really kick-started our mobility efforts.”
So far, she said, the agency has established a mobility innovation center, delivered a top-secret data and voice pilot, delivered an NSA campus laptop pilot, and developed tablet architecture.
“Looking ahead … we’ve got to make sure we’re constantly looking at the user experience [and] responding to the needs of the user,” she said. “We continue … to prototype and pilot different services.”
Looking forward to a “new way of thinking,” Plunkett said she often has to carry up to four mobile devices when she travels outside of Maryland due to current technology capabilities.
“I very, very much look forward to, as do all of us around government, being able to reduce that number to a lot less than that,” she said. “And with your help and partnership, I am confident we can get there.”