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Tech Insight: Tools For Securing Your Smartphones

What major smartphone vendors provide from a security standpoint

The growing popularity of smartphones in the enterprise requires that companies extend similar data protection policies to their smartphones as they use for their computer systems. But smartphones pose slightly different threats: While malware is still a threat, the likelihood of the mobile device being lost or stolen is much more likely because of its small size and portability.

Encryption is a way to lock down smartphones. But to date, it's not widely adopted across enterprise mobile devices. According to a recent Ponemon Institute report, "2009 Annual Study: U.S. Enterprise Encryption Tools," 59 percent of enterprises surveyed rated the data on mobile devices used by employees as important to very important. Just how many organizations actually encrypt the data on smartphones, however, was low: Only 26 percent said they encrypt data on mobile devices most of the time, while 51 percent said they never do, according to the survey, which was commissioned by PGP.

It might seem the amount of data loss from a mobile device would be insignificant. But 16 gigabytes isn't uncommon for a smartphone today, and that's a substantial amount of potential data. Additionally, there's the high likelihood that corporate smartphones can check corporate e-mail without needing a password. They also can access an internal network via VPN, and custom ERP, sales, or similar applications -- allowing access to sensitive data. Add that all together, and you have the clear potential for a major data breach.

The two major platforms for reining in control of smartphones are BlackBerry Enterprise Server and Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync. Both are well-established and have extensive support for managing policies, such as encryption, password complexity, account lockout, and remote wipe. But they have their pros and cons, including vendor lock-in versus multivendor device support and granularity of endpoint control. And there's always the competitors looking to supplant both platforms with one single unified platform supporting BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, Palm, and iPhone.

RIM's BlackBerry has dominated the enterprise smartphone arena for years because of its extensive policy management capabilities, built-in security features, and ease of use for users. BlackBerry offers more than 400 policy settings for making sure smartphones are adequately protected from unauthorized access. And devices can be deployed without the need for a third-party encryption solution to handle data at rest and in transit because they include out-of-the-box support for encrypted communications back to the enterprise server, intranet services, and encrypted storage.

Microsoft's Exchange ActiveSync also comes with some strong security tools for enterprises. Encryption for data at rest is weak compared with the BlackBerry's, and the available policies pale in comparison by number, but important options in password settings, recovery, and remote wipe are there. As expected, there is tight integration with Windows Mobile-based devices, but support doesn't stop at Windows-based smartphones. Other smartphone vendors have implemented management tie-ins for remote management via ActiveSync, although several of the implementations are lacking in completeness. With each new OS released for the Apple iPhone, Apple has taken steps to implement more ActiveSync functionality, while current support within the Motorola Droid is weak.

Companies using smartphones from various vendors have options, too. The growing need to manage a largely heterogeneous smartphone environment with a mixture of Palm, iPhone, BlackBerry, and Windows Mobile has created a market of promising players. Third-party offerings add the ability to now manage many disparate devices that all have varying levels of support for various policy settings and features within a unified interface. The offerings here include enterprise management solutions from BoxTone, Trust Digital, MobileIron, and GuardianEdge. At the very least, all of the vendors support the platforms mentioned above, several include support for Symbian, and some are adding support for Google Android devices.

Native and third-party management solutions provide support to configure encryption for data at rest, and SSL is typically used for data in-transit.

So why don't many enterprises deploy these tools for securing their smartphones? The sad fact is it may take a few lost or stolen smartphones to get enterprises to move from the "it's important to me" category to actually adopting these tools.

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Discuss" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message.

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