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11 20 2018

NCI Agency tackles hefty project to modernize cryptographic equipment

NATO's Communications and Information Agency is on track to wrap up in the new year a complex project to modernize maritime cryptographic assets.

The project, focused on replacing NATO's maritime cryptographic equipment reaching its end of life with modern equipment, is scheduled to be completed in January, said Fred Jordan, head of the cyber security capability development branch for the NCI Agency. The Maritime Broadcast Cryptographic Modernization project is one of several in the cyber security project portfolio.

A team of six or so specially trained in installing cryptographic equipment is working on the effort, he said.

"It's not just plug and play, it's far more intricate than that," Jordan said of the project.

The agency has to replace both hardware and software, and do so in a way that minimizes disruption to the services using the equipment. Adding to the complexity is the fact that these cryptographic units were designed in the 1980s, so they require that know-how to be able to replace them, Jordan said.

Naval assets such as ships and submarines communicate with the alliance's naval bases to accept new information, such as plans or missions, Jordan said. Part of this communication takes place through high frequency and very low frequency broadcast.

The cryptographic equipment -- which is specifically designed for the maritime broadcast environment -- secures those channels. The agency is working to modernizing that equipment across 10 multinational sites.

"We're protecting the confidentiality and integrity of the information being sent to and from a NATO naval base to a naval asset," Jordan said. "If this information is compromised, so in other words if an adversary can actually read those messages, then this could compromise the effectiveness of that mission."

NCI Agency tackles hefty project to modernize cryptographic equipment

Though the agency will have completed its project in January the work isn't quite over, Jordan said. NATO nations have to do the same work to modernize equipment on their own naval assets, he said.

"When you are encrypting the communication link the two parties basically have to share the same technology, the same algorithms and the same keys," he said.

Each NATO nation has their own schedule for updating the cryptographic equipment, but some nations have already begun modernizing their units, Jordan said.

Though the NCI Agency team modernizing the equipment has faced some obstacles, it has been able to tackle them, thanks to the experience and knowledge of the team, Jordan said.

"That's what NATO is about: when there's a problem we work together to find solutions," Jordan said.