The Defense Department is funding a project that officials say could revolutionize the way companies, federal agencies and the military itself verify that people are who they say they are and it could be available in most commercial smartphones within two years.
The technology, which will be embedded in smartphones’ hardware, will analyze a variety of identifiers that are unique to an individual, such as the hand pressure and wrist tension when the person holds a smartphone and the person’s peculiar gait while walking, said Steve Wallace, technical director at the Defense Information Systems Agency.
Organizations that use the tool can combine those identifiers to give the phone holder a “risk score,” Wallace said. If the risk score is low enough, the organization can presume the person is who she says she is and grant her access to sensitive files on the phone or on a connected computer or grant her access to a secure facility. If the score’s too high, she’ll be locked out.
Nextgov spoke with Wallace on the sidelines of a DISA press conference during a cybersecurity event hosted by the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association.
The project, which is being developed by a private company with DISA funding, grew out of a years-long Pentagon effort to rid the department of the cumbersome common access cards, called CAC cards. Troops and civilian Pentagon employees have used CAC cards for years to enter bases and digitally verify their identities for department networks.
The new hardware tool will use the same principle as CAC cards, sharing encrypted information with a machine to prove a person’s identity, Wallace said. Unlike CAC cards, though, it will be able to continuously gather and verify that identifying information. The tool will also be embedded in a device the person is already carrying.
The company developing the system, which Wallace declined to name, will deliver about 75 prototypes to DISA this fall, he said.
Once all the bugs have been worked out of the prototypes, major companies will begin embedding the necessary tools inside the computer chips that power smartphones, he said. From there, the smartphone makers themselves will have to update phones to use the tool.
The technology should be commercially available within a couple of years, Wallace said. He declined to say which smartphone and chipmakers planned to participate in the project, but said the capability will be available “in the vast majority of mobile devices.”
It will be up to phone makers to decide whether to make the capability available and up to organizations whether to use it, he said.
DISA gathered information from some private-sector organizations, including in the financial sector, to ensure the verification tool also meets their needs, he said.
“We foresee it being used quite widely,” he said.
Another identifier that will likely be built into the chips is a GPS tracker that will store encrypted information about a person’s movements, Wallace said. The verification tool would analyze historical information about a person’s locations and major, recent anomalies would raise the person’s risk score.
The tool would be separate from the GPS function used by mapping and exercise apps, he said.
The tool does not include biometric information, such as a thumbprint or eye scans at this point, Wallace said, because DISA judged that existing commercial applications of biometric information are too easy to spoof.
The Pentagon may reconsider biometric indicators if the state of the art improves, he said.
JRSS is Too S-L-O-W
Also during Wednesday’s press conference, DISA officials acknowledged some performance issues for tools that military units are storing inside the Joint Regional Security Stacks, or JRSS. The JRSS is an early phase of a planned Defense Department-wide computer cloud.
In general, digital tools that the services put into the cloud are still functioning and aren’t losing any data, but it is taking too long for data to transfer from the cloud to the user, DISA Operations Director David Bennett told reporters.
“It’s simply an issue of not performing as quickly as applications need to,” he said.
The latency issues have led the Army, which has been ahead of other services in transferring information to JRSS, to “reschedule and re-phase” some of those transitions, DISA Director Vice Adm. Nancy Norton, said.
No Comment on DISA’s Fate
Norton declined to comment on language in the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act that would transfer many of DISA’s technology contracting and management duties to other parts of the Defense Department.
Norton told reporters she was “very familiar with the discussion and various versions of the language,” but that the agency “doesn’t comment on proposed legislation.”
When a reporter asked later about reports that some DISA functions are already being transferred to U.S. Cyber Command, a public affairs officer said the question was out of the scope of the press conference.