DARPA Secures Android Links Where No Network Can Reach

Corporate datacenter and network managers scrambling to reinforce networks and plug security holes created by the rise of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) may find inspiration in a military project turning famously insecure Android devices into networks secure enough for troops in combat.

In an effort to give troops in the field more reliable ways to exchange data with each other and with local commanders, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) created a project whose goal is to create a secure, local mesh network that troops in the field can use to communicate even when they’re out of range of wireless access points, cell towers or even satellite links.

In the first phase of the project, known as Content-Based Mobile Edge Networking (CBMEN), DARPA developed apps that could be loaded onto Android smartphones to allow them to connect with standard Army Rifleman Radios and with one another without requiring a server or wireless access point to provide a central communications hub.

The first CBMEN systems just passed their first round of testing at Fort A.P. Hill in Virginia, according to an Aug. 21 announcement from DARPA.

The idea behind the project is not to give troops special applications, heads-up displays or other technology designed specifically to help them in combat, according to the original project pitch from DARPA program manager Keith Gremban. Instead, the idea is to give them a way to exchange data with each other, with local commanders or other units to make sure squads in the field have access to the latest intelligence information and imagery without having to return to camp to download the information from a server.

If CBMEN radios or cell phones are out of range of camp or headquarters units, according to DARPA, each squad member’s mobile device can become a server that can broadcast information directly to the devices of other troops, or act as a wireless router, passing data requests and information to replicate data to devices out of range of the one that sent the updates.

The software is designed to automatically replicate the intelligence or imagery among all the CBMEN-enabled devices in the area, creating an ad hoc mesh wireless network that grows or shrinks as devices pass in and out of range of one another, according to DARPA.

The design allows end users to communicate and share information even beyond the outer edges of the network, using one another as replication sources, backup and data repeaters to make the system tolerant of disruptions of communication both at the edge and when they’re out of communication with their home base.

At one point in the testing, two squads on foot patrol came within communications range; one squad had information on a fugitive the other squad was hunting. The CBMEN software automatically transferred the information from the devices of the first squad to the second without any intervention or request from the troops. With that information, the fugitive-hunting squad was able to identify and capture their target more quickly and certainly that they could have without it, according to DARPA.

CMBEN can use standard, underlying network APIs and routing protocols to distribute content at the Layer 4 Transport network layer, while hiding the Layer 3 Network layer, or specialized APIs and protocols to distribute content at Layer 3 directly.

The network is created by CBMEN software, but is independent of any other applications or servers, and can use any radio or lower-layer network to communicate, according to Gremban’s 2011 presentation. The system does not use specialized radio waveforms, encryption, communications hardware, specially developed mobile devices or even special information sources for warfighters.

It is designed only to create a network across which troops in the field can exchange information without technical difficulty, without connections to headquarters or data servers, and without access to any communications capabilities other than those inherent in the off-the-shelf mobile devices they carry, Gremban wrote.

The goal is simple and the available off-the-shelf hardware is more than sufficient to do the job.

“There’s more computing power and memory in my smartphone than the supercomputer I used in college,” Gremban wrote in the DARPA announcement. “With 64 gigabytes of storage in a single smartphone, a squad of nine troops could have more than half a terabyte (500 GB) of cloud storage. CBMEN taps into that huge capacity.”

Because the application and setup are so simple and limited in scope, the same approach can be used in the same way for police, firefighters and other emergency response groups in civilian environments, according to DARPA. It could also be used at the edge of a corporate network for security or data updates and other purposes. “Content sharing, starting at the tactical edge, is changing the world in the way information can be shared,” Gremban said.


Credit: DARPA