As we start 2011, a friend pointed out that my endpoint research agenda (including much of my work on Positivity) is pretty PC platform focused. And relative to endpoint security that is on point. But the reality is that nowadays we cannot assume that our only threat vectors remain PC-like devices. Given that pretty much all the smart phones out there are as powerful as the computers I used 5 years ago, we need to factor in that mobile devices are the next frontier for badness.

Guys like Charlie Miller have already shown (multiple times) how to break Apple’s mobile devices, and we can probably consider ourselves more lucky than good that we’ve been spared a truly problematic mobile attack to date. Luck is no better a strategy than hope. So based on the largesse of our friends at Fosforous, who are running a program with the fine folks at McAfee, I’m going to write a quick paper outlining some realities of mobile device security.

You’ve Lost Control: Accept It

First let’s point out the elephant in the room: Control. If you feel the need to control your end-user computing environment you are in the wrong profession. The good old days of dictating devices, platforms, and applications are gone – along with the KGB interrogation lights. You may have missed the obituary, but control of devices was pretty well staked through the heart by the advent of cool iDevices. Yes, I’m talking about iPhones, iPads, Androids, and Palms. OK, Palm not so much, but certainly the others. Some smart IT folks realized, when the CEO called and said she had an iPad and needed to get her email and look at those deal documents, that we were entering a different world.

Lots of folks are calling this consumerization, which is fine. Just like anything else, it needs a name, but to me this is really just a clear indicatiion that we have lost control. But you don’t have to accept it. You can try to find a job with one of the five or ten government agencies that can still dictate their computing environment (and good luck as they move all their stuff to the cloud). But the rest of us need to accept that our employees will be bringing their own devices onto the network, and we can’t stop them.

So we first need to figure out what the big deal is. How many ways can this consumerization wave kill us? And yes, you need to know. Sticking your head into the sand like an ostrich isn’t a viable option.

I Can Haz Your Mobile Devices

As always, you need to start any security-oriented program by understanding the risks you face. To be clear, a lot of these risks aren’t necessarily caused by the bad guys, but security folks already knew that. Our own people tend to do more damage to our systems than any of the attackers. So we’ll cover a mix of external and self-inflicted wounds.

Data Loss

The first issue with having key people (or even non-key people) access your company’s stuff using their own devices is data security. Clearly things like email and the fancy iPhone app from your CRM vendor are driving 24/7 access via these devices in the first place. So thinking about data loss is tops on the hit parade:

  • Device Loss: You’ll be amazed at the number of ways your employees lose mobile devices. It’s not impossible to leave a 17” laptop in an airplane seat, but it’s hard. Leaving smartphones I-don’t-know-where happens all the time. And Find My iPhone won’t save you when the battery dies or the thief engages airplane mode. So you have to plan for the fact that these devices will be lost with sensitive data on them, and you need to protect that data.
  • Device Sale: Oh yeah, these devices are owned by employees. So when they feel the urge to buy the new Shiny Object, they will. Those crazy employees usually find a buyer on eBay or Craigslist and send them the old device. Will it be cleaned? Definitely possible! Is it more likely to have your Q4 forecast on it? Don’t answer that, but make sure you have some way to address this.


You can’t discuss security without at least mentioning malware. So far attacks on smartphones have been relatively tame. But I wouldn’t build my security strategy on a bet that they will remain tame. Again, hope is not a strategy.

  • Weaponized Exploits: To date there hasn’t been much malware targeting mobiles, although sites like show what is possible. So it’s not a matter of if, but when some self-proliferating exploit will make the rounds and spread like wildfire.
  • App Store Mayhem: Sure, all these app stores include controls to ensure malware doesn’t make its way onto authorized applications, but you have to expect that at some point, one of these process will experience a breakdown (even if it’s just an obscure third-party store operator losing their keys), and something bad will get in. And if it’s a widespread application? Right: mayhem and anarchy, which is always ‘fun’ for us security folks.
  • Jailbreak: Remember, these devices are not owned by your organization. So employees can consciously decide to bypass whatever security controls are built into the platform. They don’t necessarily care that jailbreaking basically obviates all security controls you might be counting on.

Are you having fun yet?


Finally, we’ll talk a bit about the complexities of managing thousands of devices – some you own and some you don’t. And sure, that’s not really a security issue until you mess up a configuration and open up a huge hole on the device(s). So managing and enforcing policies is critical to maintaining any semblance of security on these devices.

  • Misconfiguration: What happens when you get 20 different device types with 5 different versions of operating systems, and 25 different apps (that you care about) running on each? Configuration nightmare. This is where automation becomes critical, because configuration errors enable many successful attacks.
  • Patching: Remember each smartphone is a computer, and every so often the vendor will find a thing or two (or forty) that must be fixed. And believe me, the only time they fix something is when it represents clear and present danger. So in many cases not patching is a very bad idea. This is easier said than done, however, when you don’t control the device.
  • Network Hijinks: Remember that these devices all include WiFi radios, which means their access to all your critical data will connect to the network via the cyber cesspool of public WiFi. You need to factor in what types of connectivity make sense – and more importantly which don’t.

Of course, this isn’t a comprehensive list, but should be enough to make sure that any chance of you sleeping well is pretty much gone. Now that you know what you are up against, what can you do about it? At Securosis, we recommend a two-pronged attack, one hard (involving technical controls) and the other softer (process and communication). The next post in our series will talk about the softer side of protecting mobile devices, which is really about saying no without losing your job.