NSA Creates Android-Based Spy Phones

March 2, 2012

android nsa fishbowl 007

It’s no easy task, keeping America safe. Just ask the country’s chief guardian – the National Security Agency. To make sure that classified and sensitive information doesn’t end up in the wrong hands, NSA has picked Google’s Android mobile operating system to run the handsets used by America’s secret agents. Using the special security platform that the agency has created, NSA agents and other intelligence personnel will be able to exchange information via ultra-secure channels that make enemy surveillance nearly impossible.

Fishbowl architecture

The idea first came about as the agency was looking for commercial, off-the-shelf technology that could easily be customized and integrated into the communication systems of NSA. The concept materialized into a pilot project that has come to be known as the Fishbowl project.

The agency’s Technical Director of the Information Assurance Directorate, Margaret Salter explains that, to secure the calls made from smartphones, two layers of encryption are used. For an extra measure of security, NSA routes all the calls through its secure servers. These provide the ultimate assurance that the Android-based handsets can be used by NSA agents to engage in top-secret communication.

Despite the layers and layers of encryption, the quality of the call is not negatively affected, except for a small delay. That’s a small price to pay for being able to use commercial infrastructure (which is far more cheaper than any custom solution that NSA can develop in-house)  to communicate securely.

When asked why Android OS was chosen for the pilot project, Salter said that, at the end of the day, it came down to the openness of the operating system, which allows the technical wizards at NSA to make the required modifications and to remove components that may pose security threats. You know, the things for which the OS is unfairly and infamously known for. There are currently about 100 Android handsets that have been deployed to NSA agents on the field.

So, what’s next for the agency? With the success of Fishbowl and its proven ability to secure voice calls, the agency is eyeing the use of similar technology to transfer data. NSA even considers creating a kind of internal App Market, that government agents can use to download apps on their devices, without risking to compromise homeland security.