Britain’s spies and other high ranking civil servants with access to sensitive information are having their smartphone security updated with some of the latest technology in the world to ward against prying eyes.
While smartphones have led to huge leaps in the efficiency of different kinds of communication and data transfer they are also a security concern. Owners access information in public spaces which means screens could be visible to others and there is also always the possibility of an unlocked device being snatched from its user’s hands.
Add in the cyber security threat of messages and data being hacked and smartphones are a double-edged sword for GCHQ, To combat that security threat, Britain’s spy chiefs are trialling a number of new, high tech apps and encryption services. The Times reports it is hoped that the new technology will allow what the newspaper describes as “above-official level information” to be shared via smartphones.
GCHQ have developed an app that has been named “Face Off”, that runs on iPhones and employs some of the latest technology in the field of facial recognition. It uses a combination of facial recognition, facial identification and an accelerometer to lock the phone. These technologies can not only understand if the smartphone is in the wrong hands or sense it may have been snatched out of its user’s grasp but even if the screen is visible to someone else. The facial identifier, which uses the phone’s camera, can detect if another face has a line of vision that might allow the screen to be read.
Face Off is still in a beta version but GCHQ boffins hope they will be able to roll it out across the UK’s security services and other highly sensitive civil service roles in the near future. Other departments such as the Ministry of Defence and Cabinet Office that deal with classified information would also be expected to be offered use of the app.
There are also concerns that publically available messaging apps that offer an encrypted service also do not offer the level of security necessary for certain government roles. Until now many government departments have been using the encrypted WhatsApp messenger owned by Facebook. The first concern is that the keys to the encryption used are in the possession of a private company. The second is that WhatsApp offers users the option to back up messenger data in the Cloud.
It’s not unknown for public Cloud services to be hacked and even if data is encrypted, a hacker that was able to obtain sensitive data would be able to try to crack the encryption code at leisure. The government are currently trialling commercial, high security alternatives offered by the UK company Armour Comms and Sweden’s Cryptify.