Perimeter
7/23/2012
12:31 PM
Wendy Nather
Wendy Nather
Commentary
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The Mobile Monitoring Mess

Bringing your own device to work sounds peachy to employees, but security, regulatory, and privacy issues still need to be worked out on the monitoring side

At what point did “their device” become “my device”? Probably as soon as I started taking personal calls on the brick I called a mobile phone around 1990. I never saw a bill because my employer was paying for every call -- even the international ones where I had to talk to a non-native English speaker in a loud data center on another continent through a reboot and fsck while at the same time navigating the Chicago freeway system. Good times.

I went through any number of personal digital assistants -- Palm, Casio, Sharp Zaurus -- because it was just so easy to keep all of my work appointments and contact numbers in them. Email clients were cumbersome to use back then, so the amount of work-related data I had on them was minimal, even though the fact that I was meeting with particular people might have been considered confidential. There was no thought of segregating the personal, especially when I had work reasons to be sending SMS messages to a friend while on a business trip.

However, things became a lot more voluminous once I started receiving work email on a BlackBerry. Email is the virtual file cabinet for a lot of people; that’s often where the gold is. The device (paid for by me) became a de facto business data repository, just as much as the servers in the data center. And that’s when the issues bubbled up: Is the data still subject to legally mandated retention schedules? Is it searchable in response to a required Public Information Act request? Can my employer search it without my knowledge or consent in the course of an investigation? Could I be forced to have it wiped if the device were stolen?

Ironically enough, the creation of mobile device management (MDM) and other network-based mobile security solutions made the question even bigger. Because many of those require the mobile device to send all of its traffic through an enterprise-owned proxy, this meant that all network activity -- including off-hours browsing -- could be logged by my employer. Should they be logging my personal activity? Should they be forcing it to comply with their enterprise policies? (I like going to Mabel’s 4chan Politically Incorrect Adult Exotic Yarn World as much as the next guy.)

In other words, this mobile device monitoring issue has always been lurking in the background. It just got worse as more functions became possible: the increased storage of data and the expanded ability to manage communications. In countries where data privacy laws are so strict that you can’t collect login events for your employees, this may actually tame the problem better than in places where privacy regulations are still undefined. When the policies have to be defined by the organization, vetted by legal and human resource experts, and communicated to staff, there is a lot of room for error and expensive misunderstanding.

Your monitoring policies have to strike a balance among any regulatory compliance, your security risk management, and your attitude toward your employees. Policies to protect the privacy of users should be independent of who paid for the smartphone. And it should be consistent across all IT assets because the enterprise isn’t based on box ownership anymore. The enterprise is an abstract operation that involves the manipulation of certain types of data in a business context. Don’t let the mobile angle fool you too much into treating those endpoints differently from the ones you have sitting in the office. Monitoring is monitoring, no matter where or how it happens.

Wendy Nather is Research Director of the Enterprise Security Practice at the independent analyst firm 451 Research. You can find her on Twitter as @451wendy.

Wendy Nather is Research Director of the Enterprise Security Practice at independent analyst firm 451 Research. With over 30 years of IT experience, she has worked both in financial services and in the public sector, both in the US and in Europe. Wendy's coverage areas ... View Full Bio

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