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US military green-lights secure version of Android for use by soldiers

BlackBerry has traditionally had a reputation for excellent security on its devices, and until now, it was the only manufacturer whose products were approved for use by US military personnel. But the times are a-changing, and the US Department of Defense has been working to review its device approval policies, in a process that is expected to see a much wider variety of smartphones and tablets approved. 

The DoD has a vast smartphone user base, with around 600,000 handsets in use. Of those, 470,000 are BlackBerrys, while the remaining 130,000 are comprised of Apple iPhones and various Android handsets, which have been engaged in a series of trials to assess their suitability for secure use in military operation. That might seem like a large trial base, but the DoD is preparing to dramatically expand the number of handsets in use by its personnel, with the total amount set to double by next year. 

As BBC News reports, Samsung is the first of the new wave of handset manufacturers whose devices have been approved for use by the DoD. This may seem like an odd choice, given that Android has earned a reputation for being... less than secure, but this is no ordinary Android. 

Samsung has been working for some time on enhancements to Android which it calls 'KNOX' - a reference to the supposedly impenetrable gold bullion repository at Fort Knox, Kentucky. The system, part of Samsung's 'SAFE' (Samsung for Enterprise) initiative, provides the ability to keep work and personal elements entirely separate on a supported Android device, and establishes a container - with its own apps, homescreen, email and calendar - entirely under the control of the enterprise, or in this case, the government department.

The technology uses device management systems and single sign-on capabilities from Centrify, and works with Microsoft's Active Directory - a major advantage over KNOX's closest competitor, BlackBerry Balance, which does not support the same integration with AD. Data on the device are encrypted using an AES cipher algorithm with a 256-bit key. 

According to Samsung, KNOX "addresses all major security gaps in Android", and the DoD evidently agrees with that assessment, based upon the results of its own trials, and opens the door for orders to be placed for KNOX-compatible Samsung phones and tablets to be ordered for use by personnel, including soldiers and other military officers. 

The DoD is also implementing new procedures and systems to deal with device and app management across the newly-supported devices. Further smartphones and tablets are expected to be approved before the end of this month, with other Android handsets and iOS devices currently being evaluated, while BlackBerry 10 has also received the thumbs-up for DoD use. 

Source: BBC News / Samsung KNOX | Image via Samsung

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