Android draws closer to military readiness

Android's flexibility and forthcoming military-grade compliance could offset its relative app insecurity

The U.S. military has been putting Google Android and Apple iOS through the paces over the past year or so in hopes of bringing ever-useful smartphones and tablets to the front lines. Android is poised to secure another edge over iOS as it draws closer to complying with stringent military-grade network requirements.

Beating iOS to the compliance punch gives Android yet another advantage over Apple's platform for broader military enlistment. Android already offers greater flexibility thanks to its open source nature; Apple's relatively inflexible business practices, such as how much it would be willing to accommodate military customers, gives Android an edge, too. What's more, Android devices are less expensive than iDevices.

Still, should the military go with Android, it runs the risk of greater exposure to security risks if it isn't careful as to how it develops and enforces mobile policies: The feds and the military have not been immune to the security risks of the consumerization of IT trend that's affected the business world, according to M86 Security Labs. It's easier for cyber criminals to propagate malware to Android devices via Google's loosey-goosey Android Marketplace than to iPhones and iPads through Apple's tightly controlled App Store.

Among Android's potential advantages in the military world, the platform is expected by year's end to meet NIST (National Institutes of Standards and Technology) compliance requirements to run on unclassified military networks, according to Nextgov. By next April, the platform is expected to win approval for NSA secret networks, Michael McCarthy, director of the Army's smartphone project, told Nextgov. By contrast, iOS is between nine months and a year away from landing NIST certification.

The military may also prefer going with Android to avoid being locked into buying mobile hardware from a single vendor. For security purposes, the military must scrutinize the supply chain of the vendor from which it ends up purchasing mobile devices. Only Apple can make iOS-based devices, and according to Nextgov, the company has yet to demonstrate that its supply chain is secure. By contrast, an array of hardware vendors can and do crank out Android devices, giving the military an opportunity to choose the one with the best security practices. From a budgetary standpoint, Apple's monopoly over iOS-powered devices also means its devices would likely be costlier than Android devices.

Android's open source nature may prove all the more appealing to the military over iOS in that military can harden and otherwise tailor the platform internally to meet its requirements. iOS does not offer that level of flexibility, and Apple has not garnered a reputation for adapting its platforms to suit the needs of enterprise or government customers.

That said, it's conceivable that iPhones and iPads may still secure spots in the military, though perhaps with fewer deployments. Ed Mazzanti, an Army director involved with the organization's mobile-device program, told CNN that the Army would likely pick two platforms for official use in order to "minimize software development needs while still offering variety, which could defend against cyber attacks targeted at a specific type of software platform."

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