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9/17/2012
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Services Can Help Identify Mobile Risks

While mobile device management (MDM) services can help a company manage its employees phones and tablets, figuring out whether the devices are up-to-date is also critical

For companies worried about sensitive data leaving their network, lost and stolen mobile devices and employees' use of mobile-friendly services -- such as DropBox or iCloud -- should be top concerns.

However, companies need to also increasingly worry about any vulnerable software running on workers' devices. Viewing mobile devices as an easy way to get inside sensitive networks, criminals and hackers have started focus on compromising the systems, say security experts. To date, most attacks have used a Trojan application, and in many cases, a vulnerability in the operating system or a popular application to expand limited application privileges to greater levels of control.

The problem for information-technology and security managers is they lack the same control over mobile devices that they have over employees' workstations, says Marc Maiffret, chief technology officer with security firm BeyondTrust.

"With mobile, what you are really shooting for is better visibility, so that you can react and do things that you know are needed," he says. "If you CFO or some other important figure in your business, is using a version of iOS that is a year out of date, that is something that you want visibility into."

Patching on mobile devices, especially phones, is perhaps the biggest problem facing mobile security today. A security fix for Android, for example, has to be integrated into a firmware update by the device manufacturer and checked out by the carrier to make sure it does not cause any network problems. The two extra steps can add months to an update. In many cases, providers fail to update even serious security flaws.

No wonder, then, that more than half of all Android devices have at least one major privilege escalation vulnerability, says Jon Oberheide, chief technology officer for mobile security firm Duo Security. Over the last seven weeks, the company has run a service, known as X-Ray, that can be installed on Android devices and will tell users if any software is vulnerable. The application has been installed on more than 26,000 devices encompassing some 1,146 different models and found that 59.8 percent of devices are vulnerable.

Determining whether a device is vulnerable is not as easy as listing the version numbers for each software package, Oberheide says.

"One of the interesting artifacts that we discovered is that a lot of devices that should be patched, are not," he says. "It is scary to find out that you can't trust the version number if you are doing mobile vulnerability assessment, you have to look and probe for the presence of that vulnerability."

[Only about half of companies have any plans to merge their physical and digital security departments, but the growing use of mobile devices is making the integration easier. See Mobile Security, Critical Infrastructure Issues Drive Physical, Logical Security Together.]

While privilege escalation was considered a less serious security issue in the past, as devices have become more secure and the actions a user can take more limited, escaping from those restrictions has become even more important.

Because workers own their devices, IT managers will not have the same control as they may have over a company's desktop infrastructure. Instead, using a service to alert when a worker's device has out-of-date software can at least give security and information-technology managers more information about their risk, says BeyondTrust's Maiffret, which offers mobile vulnerability management services.

"Unlike traditional IT, where you can control what gets installed or not, and you can yank things off," Maiffret says. "It's a little bit more of a conversation these days for mobile users. You need the visibility to know what's out there that may be bad, so you can map it back to corporate policy and have that conversation."

Companies that want to patch vulnerabilities have few options -- the best bet is to install currently-available, if basic, host protection technologies and to educate workers on being careful with the applications they install on their systems. Otherwise, just like individual users, companies have to wait for carriers to patch the devices.

It's a situation that cannot change soon enough, and has to change eventually, says Duo Security's Oberheide. "Carriers don't want this responsibility," he says. "They don't want to have to test a fix for six months at a time just to push out a patch for a simple vulnerability."

Unfortunately, carriers and device manufacturers profit from their current control of the software supply chain, so it's unlikely to change soon, he added.

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