Military mobile apps useful, but security threats loom

Made-for-battlefield apps can increase soldiers' awareness of warzone surroundings, but bear risks of malware and cyberattacks.
Written by Ellyne Phneah, Contributor

Mobile applications designed for use on the battlefield are useful in improving the situational awareness of soldiers and can ultimately save lives, but mobile security threats have become more sophisticated in years and can be harmful to such usage.

Military mobile apps help increase a solder's situational awareness in the middle of a warzone, which could in turn save lives, noted Neil Dave, consulting analyst for aerospace and defense at Frost & Sullivan Asia-Pacific.

Warfare has changed considerably over the past few years, with an increasing number of overseas operations undertaken by U.S. forces and the rise of urban and irregular warfare, Dave explained. As such, it is essential modern-day soldiers undergo specialized training so they are be able to adapt and fight in new and changing environments, he remarked.

Familiarization with terrains and landscapes is one concern of soldiers who have to fight overseas and in foreign environments, he pointed out.

Mobile applications with blueprints or maps of surrounding regions can heighten their situational awareness, enabling them to efficiently engage in warfare and minimize causalities in their team, Dave explained.

According to reports last week, the Korean government is developing nine battlefield applications for Samsung and other Android-based smartphones, and regards mobile software as assets to the country's armed forces. U.S. forces in Afghanistan also have been using military applications running on smartphones as part of the military communications network since last year.

Dave said other new technologies can be used to aid soldiers during warfare, including augmented reality and mixed reality with audio.

"With the increasing ease of being able to do just a few modifications on existing consumer mobile apps, it has become a feasible and highly attractive option to deploy mobile apps for military use," he said.

Risk of security breach
However, as mobile attacks are increasingly sophisticated, these could pose a significant threat to military smartphone use, Dave warned.

Security breaches, for instance, can occur while data is transmitted from one phone to another during warfare, he observed. This will compromise national security as well as safety in the event these phones are stolen or fall into the enemy's hands, he pointed out.

According to Dan Stickel, CEO of security firm Metaforic, malware can also lie dormant and unnoticed on the device until a predetermined time or when a signal is received. This will activate the malware, potentially shutting down all devices, he said.

Stickel highlighted another scenario in which stolen credentials can also be broadcasted to enemy agents who will use the data to infiltrate central command and control (C&C) systems.

"While such problems are not unique to [Google] Android phones or [Apple] iPhones, increasing reliance on these devices increases the overall risk and potential consequences," he said.

To mitigate such threats, Dave advised military forces implement encryption when data is transmitted between these devices. For instance, existing files should be encrypted such that if the smartphone is lost, all data in the device will be replaced with meaningless data, he cited.

He said sensitive information should be placed in isolated and protective folders within the smartphone to prevent data hacks in the event the device is stolen or suffers attacks from malware or other viruses.

All devices should also have their browsing and downloading capabilities turned off, Stickel said, noting that the smartphone may be compromised when someone uses it to browse an uncontrollable Web site, or download a new app.

He acknowledged, however, the functionality may sometimes come in handy on the battlefield so it is a tradeoff for better security.

Governments can establish policies which require the installation of antivirus software and mobile device management software, which can remotely inspect the health of these devices, Stickel said.

Dave added that all smartphones in use by the military should undergo a series of checks to ensure proper network security features have been installed in these devices.

When contacted, defense ministries in Malaysia and Singapore declined to comment on whether they planned to use mobile apps for their armed forces.

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