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NIST Team Honored for Work on Military Smartphone Apps, Security

From NIST Tech Beat: September 3, 2014

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Contact: Mark Bello
301-975-3776

National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) researchers have earned a 2014 GCN Award for Information Technology Excellence* for speeding development and delivery of secure, battlefield-handy—and sometimes lifesaving—smartphone apps to U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

transapps heatmap screen
Screen capture demonstrates the TransApps HeatMap smartphone application during testing prior to deployment in Afghanistan. Colors indicate the frequency with which a particular route is traveled, with red representing heaviest use.
Credit: NIST

The four-year NIST effort included distilling soldiers’ needs into app requirements, evaluating app performance, and designing a unique smartphone security architecture. It is among 10 GCN-recognized public-sector projects “showing the power of mobile technology to transform the government IT enterprise.”

The NIST team of engineers and computer scientists was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), under its Transformative Apps (TransApps) program. Working with soldiers, contract app developers and others, NIST contributed two brands of expertise—cybersecurity and software performance evaluation. And it organized the collaboration to accomplish DARPA’s objective, "Develop a diverse array of militarily relevant software applications using an innovative new development and acquisition process."

Within about a year after its 2010 start, DARPA-funded collaborators delivered a batch of commercially available smartphones and an initial set of secure, soldier-defined apps to an Army brigade in Afghanistan. By 2013, about 4,000 mobile devices (smartphones and tablets) were deployed in Afghanistan, and an online apps store was up and running for soldiers. The site now features about 60 apps—from map displays to a calculator for estimating blast distances to language games—and it offers regular upgrades.

One of the most popular apps is HeatMap, which color codes routes to indicate frequency of troop use, helping soldiers to vary their travel patterns.

Now that the systemized process for developing and vetting apps is in place, the time to go from troop requirements to prototype app may take a week, sometimes days. In addition to integration testing, all deployed apps undergo periodic user-centered testing with a NIST-developed “App Spot Checklist” that yields data for thorough statistical analysis. Camera usability, GPS accuracy, timing metrics, compass accuracy, and display usability are among the app and device features tested with NIST methods

DARPA’s TransApps program has earned high marks from its customers and prompted testimonials from the battlefield. Here’s an example:

“The Taliban had nearly surrounded us. We used the handheld (TransApps device) to identify the enemy’s position and fired directly at them. If we would not have had the device to pinpoint the enemy, lives could have been lost.”

Besides Afghanistan, TransApp devices were used by police and others at the 2013 presidential inauguration and at the 2014 Boston Marathon.

In an April 2014 article in ITEA Journal, several members of the NIST team described testing and evaluation of TransApps devices. It is available at www.nist.gov/manuscript-publication-search.cfm?pub_id=915161.

Other collaborators included George Mason University, Invincea, Kryptowire, viaForensics and Galois.

*The GCN 2014 Awards are described at http://gcn.com/Articles/2014/08/18/2014-GCN-Award-Winners.aspx?Page=1.

Edited on Sept. 4, 2014, to correct error in reference to Boston Marathon.