Defense of Israel? The IDF has an app store for that

Defense of Israel? The IDF has an app store for that

The Israeli army is going mobile, overcoming major security and organizational challenges to make it happen

With their sophisticated cameras, super-sensitive sensors and location-tracking technology, today’s smartphones are almost indispensable in a wide range of industries. That includes the defense establishment, according to the head of mobility application development in Matzpen, the army’s largest producer of software.

“Apps enable their users to extend capabilities, drawing on data and using tools to make life easier, enhance experiences, and achieve goals for users,” said Dean (last name withheld for security reasons). “Our idea is to develop apps that soldiers in the field can use to achieve those same results, storing them in an app store that soldiers can access and download apps from as they need them.”

Dean was speaking to The Times of Israel at the IDF’s first-ever Mobility Hackathon, held this week at the IDF’s Cyber Defense Academy.

“Computing is moving out of the office and into the field, and it’s no different in the Israel Defense Forces,” said IDF Lt. Col. Rami Shaked, director of the academy. “It’s obvious that there are a lot of advantages to being mobile, but for the IDF, there are of course many security challenges in this transition. That’s why we are holding this hackathon. We are always facing new challenges and dangers, and we have to be flexible enough to deal with them as they arise.”

The hackathon constitutes a tech response to those challenges. Hackathoners were charged with coming up with apps and technologies that could respond to the issues soldiers in the field face – like figuring out where a riot is going to break out before it happens, in order to head off the unrest. That app, along with dozens of others, were on display at the event, which took place at the academy and brought together over 100 soldiers of varying rank – from private to colonel – and from all branches of the IDF, including the army, navy and air force.

That in and of itself was an accomplishment, said Shaked. “Bringing together all those representatives in a normally very structured organization is itself a very innovative idea – as innovative as the ideas our participants are producing in this hackathon.”

An IDF hacker works on a component (Courtesy)
An IDF hacker works on a component (Courtesy)

As armies go, the IDF is relatively informal, as Israelis are in general, but bringing together diverse interests, populations, services, and other groups that have separate – sometimes competing – agendas is something else entirely. Yet the academy, located at an army base in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, does just that.

Part of the C4i Computer Services Directorate, the academy hosts dozens of courses at its campus, including, for example, Shahar, the tech-oriented little brother of the more well-known Nahal Haredi program, which deploys ultra-Orthodox soldiers in the field, on patrols and in combat duty.

Shahar recruits get a six-month crash course in programming, network administration, communications, and other areas that the IDF needs tech workers for. After the course, they are sent to tech and intelligence units, where they work on improving communications and developing solutions for field units using new equipment and protocols.

The academy runs such programs for female soldiers, recruits from the periphery, and other groups with special needs, said Shaked.

“Many people decry – and rightly so – the lack of science education in many schools, as well as the lack of motivation among students. But here at this hackathon – and among the hundreds of applicants we turned away due to lack of space – we have many top-notch programmers who went through our six-month intensive training program. Without a computing background in high school, they are now at the point where they can write apps that soldiers will use in the field, perhaps to save the lives of their comrades or of themselves.”

The apps were, as at other hackathons, developed by soldiers working in teams of two or three (the event, which began Wednesday morning, was scheduled to run for 48 hours straight; teams had backups that relieved each other every eight hours or so).

While the details of many of the apps under construction could not be revealed because of security concerns, the crew was prepared to discuss some of them.

One app, for example, does face recognition, but based on additional environmental factors. “There are many face recognition apps today, but many are inaccurate, and none give context,” said R.. one of the soldiers working on the project. “I myself have tried many of them, and often they identify me as someone who looks like me.”

What’s missing, he said, is context; the app he and his team are developing will look not only at the face but the environment – for example, the subject’s location, the nature of the crowd if they are in one, the people they are associating with, etc. With those enhancements, the app will be able to much more easily, quickly, and efficiently identify the subject, R. said.

Rotem (L) and Dean (R ) flank hackers at the Mobility Hackathon (Courtesy)
Rotem (L) and Dean (R ) flank hackers at the Mobility Hackathon (Courtesy)

Another app provides translation of text using the same contextual system, said Y., who was part of the team developing the “Shield Project” app.

“With this app, you can take a photo using a smartphone of graffiti on a wall in any language, like Arabic, and have the translation instantly appear on your device,” he said.

Again, that is a technology that exists – but Shield Project goes it several steps better, searching through a database for other, similar expressions that were perhaps associated with specific terror cells, or comparing that graffito with others in a geographic area to understand if an organized event – like a riot – is brewing.

Yet a third app being developed will help sharpshooters with a common problem – the effect of wind on a bullet, said C., one of the developers of EyeSniper.

“Although it is not commonly known among the public, the ability of a sharpshooter to do his work properly is greatly affected by the wind,” said C. “Our app uses a device’s sensors and downloads weather information to help the sharpshooter accurately aim, compensating for the wind speed and direction.”

But even beyond the apps themselves, said Dean, is the technology infrastructure the IDF is developing in order to ensure that those apps – and access to the app store where they will be available – are accessible only to IDF soldiers. “As everyone knows, security is the Achille’s heel of mobility, but unlike in a normal case of hacking, where the most a victim will probably lose is money, we have a great deal more at stake.”

Not going mobile is not an option for the IDF, given all that devices can do, said Dean. But public wifi, clouds, GPS systems, cell networks, and so on are also not an option. “That’s why we built our own infrastructure, one that duplicates and provides the same services users can get with a regular network, but extremely hardened and secure.”

It’s a lot harder than it sounds, said Rotem, the lead programmer in Matzpen.

“Take push notifications,” the technology that allows apps to download messages and present them automatically to users, he said. “That requires an always-on connection that allows a server to reach out anytime and anywhere. How do you do that behind a super-strong firewall? But how can you have a mobile app that does not accommodate push?”

The answer, said Rotem, entailed an entire redesign of the Android operating system to accommodate both services and security.

“It’s unprecedented,” he said. “In order to pull this off we have had to review every small detail, and solve security issues that private enterprise has been grappling with for years. I’m happy to say we have been successful – otherwise we could not be conducting this event. All the apps developed here will take full advantage of the IDF’s ‘flavor’ of Android and will be stored in our app store, where soldiers will be able to download them as needed.”

“It’s all thanks to the foresight of the academy, C4i, Lotem (the IDF Computer Services Directorate), and the openness and culture of entrepreneurship the IDF is promoting in order to get the best out of our soldiers,”, said Shaked. “These are the soldiers who are going to be the leaders of the industry tomorrow, and they are getting a great start right here.”

And as an extra side benefit, the IDF now has a very rare – and likely to be in great demand – asset: a super-safe Android operating system that, said Shaked, “has so far proven impenetrable, and we have had the best people trying to break it.”

A lá Iron Dome technology, the IDF now has a potential money-maker with a system that, if it were available on the open market, would probably fetch a good price.

Maybe one day, said Shaked.

“We didn’t actually think about that, although now that you mention it, it sounds like something to think about. But we in the IDF have one business – defending the people of Israel – and for now, that’s more than enough of a job for us.”

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