Modern field guide to security and privacy
A soldier takes a selfie at the US Army base outside Mosul, Iraq, on Oct. 25, 2016.
Alaa Al-Marjani/Reuters
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A more connected military means new battlefield glitches, too

With its $52 million initiative to vastly expand connectivity and technology on the front lines, the US Army knows it may also give enemies new digital targets to hack or manipulate. Is it up for the challenge?

 

The US Army is embarking on a potentially decade-long quest to prepare soldiers to operate in the Digital Age.

In a $52 million initiative to create what it's calling the Internet of Battlefield Things, the Army Research Lab plans to redesign everything the soldier wears – and uses – so that it connects to the military's vast digital communications networks.

That doesn't just mean coming up with night vision goggles and helmets with sensors and embedded communications. Instead, it means reimagining the battlefield with smart materials and connectivity in mind. 

Imagine robotic tanks that maneuver themselves across desert terrain, avoiding land mines; drones with enough artificial intelligence to carry out strikes without human operators; and next-generation uniforms to monitor soldiers' heart rates and hydration levels or provide early warning alarms for chemical attacks. 

“If I’m wearing a uniform that informs me when there is a chemical attack,"  says Richard Danzig, the former US Navy Secretary, "that's a very valuable attribute.”

But all this expanded connectivity and technology brings a host of risks, too, says Mr. Danzig, who wrote a paper on this subject for the Center for a New American Security called "Surviving on a Diet of Poisoned Fruit: Reducing the National Security Risks of America’s Cyber Dependencies." For one, creating Wi-Fi enabled uniforms and weapons could give America's enemies many new digital targets. If malicious hackers can manipulate sensors to fake chemical attacks, he says, "those false signals can be debilitating."

The Army says it's well aware of the cybersecurity risks in a more-connected battlefield, and it's building out its new platform with security in mind.

According to its March 3 notice seeking bids on the Internet of Battlefield Things project, the Army said cybersecurity must be "inherent" in the planning. Indeed, cybersecurity threats in a connected war zone are triple fold. For example, enemies could potentially hack sensors to direct a tank away from their own combatants, command it to self-destruct, or enter bogus data that tricks US forces into thinking the defunct vehicle is operating just fine. 

Beyond just tampering, more software on the front lines also means that the military has to solve the problem of powering the technology that it deploys.

And then there's the issue of connectivity. Will the Army be able to get a strong enough wireless signal in the middle of a desert or in a remote mountain range?

"Some of the Army's efforts to develop mobile apps for the field failed because the devices couldn't get reliable reception," says William Carter, associate director of the technology policy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who coauthored a 2015 paper on using the Internet of Things for war fighting.

"The Army has done a lot of work on systems that can work without a constant internet connection to get around this," he says. "But because they are not linked to the internet they have limited utility."

Cybercriminals have already proven that the growing number of internet-connected consumer devices are rife with technical vulnerabilities.

In one of the biggest attacks on the commercial Internet of Things, hackers took advantage of vulnerabilities in Wi-Fi enabled security cameras and digital recording devices to create a massive bot net that took down large swaths of the web on the East Coast of the US for a short time last fall.

"If you Google [the] Internet of Things, you only find the attacks on it," says Walid Saad, a Virginia Tech electrical and computer engineering professor previously awarded Army research funding to help secure the connected battlefield. "Imagine how much more challenging [it] would be in an actual battlefield where adversaries want to attack the battlefield as opposed to a hacker in a home who just wants to have fun."

But Mr. Carter of CSIS expects the military to begin expanding connectivity in areas where the stakes aren't as high as in real battlefield conditions. He sees the military first expanding the Internet of Things into areas of supplies and personnel management because the back office powers the front lines. 

"If troops can't get supplied correctly, then they won't be able to fight," Carter notes.