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Air Force seeks tech to keep hackers out of communications

New plan to work with private sector aims to bring Air Force up to date in cybersecurity. Keeping enemy forces from intercepting communications or taking down the network is first on the list.

US Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James

US Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James traveled to Silicon Valley this week in search of tech for secure communications and improved cybersecurity.

Jim Varhegyi/courtesy of the US Air Force

The US government doesn't want terrorists to use encryption, but its military sure wants to have it.

The US Air Force is looking to partner with tech companies to build a secure messaging device, with apps, for its flight crews. Called the electronic flight bag, it has to send and receive supersensitive information, and it can't be intercepted or disrupted by enemy forces.

It's part of a larger push to bring innovative technologies to this branch of the military. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James is traveling to the nation's tech hubs to promote the program. She's currently in Silicon Valley, and she sat down with reporters and other Air Force representatives on Thursday to talk about the program. Safe communications and cybersecurity, she said, are priority number one.

Called "Open Systems Acquisition," the program fast-tracks tech companies to be considered for certain Air Force contracts. It bypasses the usual contracting system, which Lt. Col. Enrique Oti called "onerous, elaborate and expensive."

That's not OK when it comes to getting the latest tech in cybersecurity and secure messaging, said James. With the current system, she said, "we're liable to be buying yesterday's technology five years from now."

While you might worry hackers or government spies are trying to listen into your conversations or read your emails, the military is worried its missions could be compromised by a failure to protect its communications.

That's why the electronic flight bag has to be supersecure. "It's not merely an iPad with apps on it," said Air Force Director of Transformational Innovation Camron Gorguinpour.

When it comes to iPads and apps, the US government has been focused on the harm that encryption could cause to national security. The US Department of Justice has tried to get court orders forcing Apple to help decrypt iPhones in criminal and terrorism cases. Two senators have drafted a bill that would require companies to comply with court orders demanding user information. That would be very hard for WhatsApp and other app companies offering end-to-end encryption, because they don't have access to the unencrypted versions of their own users' messages.

Does the Air Force see this as contradictory to its push for encrypted technology?

"I don't really see a contradiction. We're just going to continue this dialog," said James. "It's important for my Air Force to have these kinds of technologies."