Agencies still playing catch-up in rapidly evolving world of IoT

When it comes to the Internet of Things, agency IT managers say they crave more flexible policies to buy new commercial technology and to quickly implement it in the field.

Agency leaders in the departments of Defense and Homeland Security say they’re still in the early stages of discovering how they can best leverage commercial IoT.  But they know they need a better, more creative way to get those technologies to the front lines, particularly in an environment where the enemy doesn’t care about policy or acquisition.

“We have to find that sweet spot,” Robert Palmer, DHS’ deputy chief technology officer said during a May 16 AFCEA DC panel discussion in Washington. “What is the value, the absolute value to the mission that we have to provide our soldiers and front line folks in homeland security? How do we then technically, and from a policy perspective, enable that?”

Palmer said he’s having more conversations now about how technology can be useful, rather than mapping out every possible scenario where things could go wrong with a new IoT device.

“Culturally, or where we’re moving in that direction, is one of more tolerance for getting that mission done versus protecting every possibility,” he said.

But even those conversations can’t keep up with the rapid pace that technology is moving. Agency leaders need to create more nuanced policies that accommodate the Internet of Things environment, said Maj. Scott Cuomo, an air-ground task force operational planner and ground combat element integration officer for Marine Corps Aviation.

Cuomo doesn’t hold a leadership position in the technology or science fields in his day job, but he developed an interest in the Internet of Things on the battlefield. He saw the enemy using commercial IoT devices and wondered why his unit couldn’t use similar technology — or at the very least, learn how to use it.

He said issues of policy are holding the military back.

“We are not throwing the rules out the window,” Cuomo said. “We are considering what are the rules, what are the scenarios in which the rules are defined for. … As we get into this Internet of Things more and more, we have to be really careful making one stop shop policies in the Beltway trying to apply to border patrol agents in southwest Arizona saying, ‘You have to do this because we decided this one Thursday afternoon.'”

Agencies are also struggling to keep up with the sheer speed of the IoT environment.

“We’ve gone through the process of acquiring some IoT devices recently for a project,” said David Post, technology area champion for IoT at the Information Assurance Directorate for the National Security Agency. “We looked at something three months ago, we go to order it and it’s already been end-of-life and they’ve moved on to something else.”

Because NSA and other defense and intelligence agencies are struggling to keep up with the environment, they haven’t been able to categorize new IoT products and services and develop risk ratings for them — like agencies normally would for other technology, Post said.

But even if agencies are playing catch-up with IoT, they still wish they could use it.

Wolf Tombe, chief technology officer for Customs and Border Protection, said government can find plenty of uses for commercial IoT technology. It’s a common myth that commercial solutions aren’t robust enough for agencies, he said.

“It’s not true,” Tombe said. “The disadvantage of consumer-grade technology is that it may not be rugged. The advantage is it tends to be very inexpensive, so I really don’t care. I can spend $10,000 making that $300 tablet rugged, or I can just say, ‘You know what, if the guy drops it, I don’t care. I’ll just buy a new one and replace it.’ That’s probably a far better answer than spending all that money to make a portable, mobile device really, really rugged.”

Tombe said he’s tried to repurpose cheap IoT devices before, and the devices became too bulky and heavy for officers in the field.

For Cuomo, he’s baffled why the military, DoD and other agencies can’t quickly adopt simple mapping and GPS software that he sees the enemy using on a tablet in the field. At the very least, he said the services should train their troops about the capabilities those IoT devices have and how they can best fight against the enemy using them.

“Why are we precluding ourselves from doing this?” he said. “Why are we not educating the Marines, the soldiers, the airmen or the sailors on the constraints or the potential vulnerabilities?”

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