In an increasingly security-conscious society, wireless messaging devices
operating on the Mobitex network have become a top priority for US
government officials. The most popular among these devices – and the one
that originally fueled the explosive growth of Mobitex in the US and other
markets – is the RIM 957 handheld, which when packaged with an e-mail
service is called BlackBerry.
In the days and months following the terror attacks of September 11, US Mobitex operator Cingular Wireless noted a dramatic increase in interest for its wireless messaging and email services. The Mobitex network remained operational and fully functional both through the attacks and during the resulting surge in traffic. Cingular also provided a large number of BlackBerry devices to rescue workers from the New York Police Department and other authorities, allowing them to communicate when other networks were down or overloaded.
With this new awareness of the importance of reliable communications in times of crisis, several US authorities began equipping their staffs with wireless handhelds running on Cingular’s Mobitex network. New customers have included local police and fire departments, as well as federal authorities. In a widely publicized contract, the US House of Representatives also decided to equip all of its members with BlackBerries.
“Interest from the government sector in wireless messaging is at an all time high,” comments Charles Nelson, president of Cingular Interactive. “There is growing recognition that messaging expedites critical communications and improves decision support. Plus, there’s considerable confidence in the BlackBerry and in Cingular’s Mobitex network, because they’ve proven to be rugged, reliable and secure under extremely demanding conditions.”
One of the more interesting deployments of wireless handhelds has been in the US Department of Defense (DoD) and the National Security Agency (NSA), where a secure version of the BlackBerry is being used.
“We currently have about 1,100 users, and the number is growing daily,” reports Robert Nowak of ACS Defense who is manager of the Secure BlackBerry program at the NSA.
For this deployment, RIM developed a DoD-compliant S/MIME version of the Black- Berry. The Secure MIME (Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions) version of BlackBerry ensures that not only the message, but also message attachments, are encrypted using public-key encryption algorithms that comply with DoD standards.
“We were very happy to be able to provide this flexibility to staff members on the move while extending the security of the desktop,” relates Nowak, adding that the S/MIME version of the BlackBerry was introduced in September 2002 and that it has been a runaway success since then.
Within the Department of Defense, the BlackBerry is used as a conventional but secure email client on a Microsoft Exchange-based system. Typically, messages are exchanged within workgroups or among ad hoc groups of users focused on a particular issue. Naturally, given the nature of the wireless messaging device, this has led to extensive interactive use.
The true push functionality that enables
interactive and instant messaging was also a
key feature for the NSA in its decision to purchase
the S/MIME version of BlackBerry.
Another key feature was the fact that Mobitex
supports device-to-device communications,
meaning that email is always delivered immediately,
even if the server is unavailable.
Because Mobitex allows users to be always
available and always interactive, it creates what
Nowak calls situational awareness.
Freedom to share
“People are always aware of the current situation because the secure messaging service allows them to share information that is sensitive but not classified as secret or top-secret,” explains Nowak. “The S/MIME implementation is particularly important in this regard. Without the encryption that it provides the communication among a group of individuals would be like a mosaic from which an eavesdropper could get a pretty good picture of what’s going on.”
The ability to freely exchange sensitive information among trusted staff members and the situational awareness that it creates are highly desirable to military planners and strategists. Being able to interact with peers while maintaining a high level of security gives Defense Department staff members more freedom and allows them to work more efficiently.
“People have almost come to regard the Secure BlackBerry as a cell phone for email,” observes Nowak. “It also creates considerable envy. When one person in a unit, perhaps a more senior officer, becomes a wireless user, everyone else wants a wireless handheld, too.”
Deployment of the Secure BlackBerry has
gone extremely smoothly. “There really have
been no problems. It’s an extremely reliable
application,” reports Nowak. “In fact, the only
real problem we’ve had is what has been called
the Crackberry effect. It’s like a drug. Once
people start using it, they won’t give it up.
Factors influencing Mobitex performance during crisis