For many businesses and consumers, the need for data security has been satisfied by Research In Motion (NASDAQ:RIMM), whose BlackBerry encryption system has been regarded as more secure than those of competing mobile networks. RIM announced last week that BlackBerry 7.0 and 7.1 are compliant with the strict Federal Information Processing Standard 140-2, a U.S. government computer security requirement for devices handling classified information.
And yet for all its efforts, RIM is starting to lose ground in the government sector. Two new projects are trying to get Google’s (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android operating system ready for a more secure future.
The National Security Agency (NSA) developed Security Enhanced (SE) Android, which was released for free in January, as a way to circumvent purchasing expensive mobile devices with proprietary security. SE Android works by removing the broad data permissions inherent in that OS and replacing them with stricter controls. Applications were segregated from the overall system to prevent malicious apps from accessing classified documents that might be stored on the device.
A closely related effort is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Transformative Apps project. The joint venture between DARPA, George Mason University, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology aimed to strip Android’s kernel, or core, to the essentials a military member would need to effectively operate the device. CNN reported last week that DARPA project devices were already in the hands of select military personnel. Other government-level testers are expected to gain access to the system soon. The DARPA version of Android will also be made open source – that is, its computing source code will be available for software developers to develop on their own.
This new love for Android didn’t stem from any courtship on the part of Google; the DARPA researchers originally wanted to tweak Apple’s (NASDAQ:AAPL) iOS but the company wouldn’t grant access to the code. Government workers had increasingly turned to iPhones or Android devices when work permitted but this new stamp of approval could have broader implications for Google. Corporations may show a strong interest in acquiring devices that support government-level security for their exchanges of business information.
It will be some time before either Android project is in wide use, but RIM may want to back away from Android security insults. The consumer-level Android systems are getting more secure with each version and Google has now begun scanning the Android app store for malicious content. The government hopes that its Android variants provide its employees with more options in choosing a mobile device that suits their needs at work. Those preferences are increasingly shifting away from RIM and, with these new Android initiatives, Apple’s products in these settings may also be pushed into the background.