Plans to introduce Android-powered handsets into the United States government and military have been accelerated recently, with a tentative date of March being thrown around for the program to launch. According to CNN, US officials are expected to get regular ol’ commercial Android smartphones capable of handling classified documents through a modified version of the operating system.
The United States Army has been testing and trialing touchscreen devices at bases for nearly two years, with forty phones being sent over a year ago. Now, the army plans to ship 50 more phones and 75 tablets to soliders in March, which has been described as “a hugely significant event”.
This is an interesting decision on the part of the United States government, especially considering Android’s well-known security woes. However, it might actually make sense once you take the following points into account.
Open Can Mean Secure
According to the aforementioned CNN report, US officials have worried that hackers or malicious apps could compromise security in the regular Android versions. If so, state secrets could be leaked, which would naturally be a major concern.
Most of Android’s issues with security have came about because of its much more open nature. A lot of people think of Android as the less secure operating system because it’s a lot easier to be manipulated by third parties with malicious intent. On the other hand, iOS is praised by some because it’s much more closed with apps and other non-certified creations not having as much access to the core operating system as their Android counterparts do.
Image courtesy of the US Air Force.
However, being open can mean being more secure. Android can offer a wider freedom to the US government to manipulate the operating system to tailor it to their specific needs. This allows specific parts of the system to be optimised for security and to integrate it well into the government’s own IT ecosystem.
Apparently, Apple denied the US government any of these type of abilities for iOS. The iPhone has, in the past, had some investment in military operations and I remember a promotional video from Apple in touting the iPhone’s ability to perform actions like remote wiping.
Trickling Down to the Consumer
It’s clear why the US government have decided to opt for Android, but will this sort of official adoption encourage commercial Google to start further closing down Android in order to make it the secure choice? Perhaps.
However, don’t expect military-grade security on your next Android handset. For obvious reasons, the government probably won’t release their own security measures on for them to be compromised by hackers.
An iPad marked as "SECRET" as it's being used within the military, albeit offline and disconnected from military networks. - Image courtesy of CNN.
Getting the United States government onto the list of Android users is a good thing and will no doubt likely fuel many fanboy arguments against the iOS users who don’t share an operating system with the military. Nevertheless, it does seem like a slow rollout, with few devices shipping out in March.
However, on a more universal, non-Android-specific note, the aim of the government is to support all smartphone platforms in the future. Apple’s iPhone and iPad remain desired by US officials and CNN has reported that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest ranking military officer in the US Armed Forces, GEN Martin Dempsey, reads classified intelligence on his iPad (although only after severing connection to military networks). The US Air Force has also been said to be considering the purchase of 18,000 iPad 2s for flight crews.
Android has been long described as a versatile option for smartphone buyers. Apple’s iPhone and iPad are still fair options and for most corporations, they offer enough flexibility to be used within their enterprise. However, Android’s open nature remains a major advantage over rival platforms thanks to its ability to be tailored to the businesses and organisations that really need a customised experience.