Commentary Mobile Security
I Left My Data In El Segundo
Data is the new bit of lost clothing you left behind on that road trip -- and two-factor authentication VPN is the way to go mobile
If you know me, then you know that travel is a major part of my life. I live out of a suitcase for a third of the year, bouncing from conference to conference and city to city. People typically acquire quite a bit while traveling: memories, visa stamps, exotic bank notes, and sometimes a wicked bird flu. But at the end of the day, it's not about what you come home with -- it's what you leave behind. Unless you're Chris McNab or Nick DePetrillo rocking the penthouse suite, you're probably like me and think you're mainly leaving behind your hard-earned cash. But for all of us, we're leaving behind much more.
Data is the new lost piece of clothing. Instead of obsessing over a lost sweater, sock, or t-shirt, I feel like I'm constantly wondering what interesting trail of bits I've left behind me as I move. On the road, our smartphones constantly remind us that we're attached to more than just beaches and sunsets. They remind us with emails, calendar events, text messages, and a myriad of other attention-hogging tools that never let us forget just how important the smartphone is in our lives. Regardless, each status update, tweet, or ignored phone call is routed directly to us through a vast network that is complex, worldwide, and often less secure than we think.
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As our packets traverse the global mobile network, we have to remember that others are indeed listening. While the romance of digital espionage was once fodder for television and movies, the modern-day reality is that it's everywhere. Government organizations want to enforce disabling encryption for security and safety reasons, kids and creeps poke at our browsers with Fire Sheep in cafes and airports, and even the occasional red-headed hacker crashes your phone's baseband out of boredom. Regardless of the means, motive, or likelihood of attack, the threat is real and there is a heck of a lot to lose.
Thankfully, we have options while traveling for both pleasure and work. And let's face it: There really is no longer a difference when you can take a conference call with a client at a Hindu shrine in Malaysia before prayer service. That's what makes technology so amazing! And with that amazing technology comes some simple steps that we can take to secure our important data and communications.
First of all, if you haven't checked out Duo Security or Google Auth, you need to. This is required reading, folks. Two-factor authentication is an absolute imperative. One of the most common vectors for network compromise in modern day is the virtual private network. The VPN allows access to all the enterprise's resources from thousands of miles away. Not only can someone listen in on my Malaysian conference call, but they could potentially steal my network login credentials and turn my vacation into a veritable information technology disaster. Two-factor authentication negates this attack vector by forcing the malicious party to crack more than a password. The attacker would also need your time-delimited token to successfully authenticate. Since mobile applications like Duo and Google Auth can be easily installed and run on the go, you always have easy access to your authentication credentials while minimizing potential impact of an attack.
Even if an attacker were to steal your phone, he would also need your password to log on, so even theft of the mobile device is a minimized threat to the enterprise.
What's even more imperative with new applications like these is that you no longer have to worry about a third party's compromise exposing your tokens. I think we all remember the lessons learned from a certain security giant's compromise in the recent past, don't we? We remember that time-based, one-time password algorithms are based on a seed, and that if the seed is compromised, your login token can be potentially derived and, of course, abused.
Well, with systems like Google Auth you manage your own seeds. While this means your enterprise must manage another piece of high security data, it's really the same as the enterprise managing passwords.
What's important is that first, as we saw with the RSA compromise, you might not get told right away when an important security resource you depend on has been breached. If you hold the seeds, however, you're no longer hoping that a black hole of security is telling you the truth. You have the ability to manage and monitor one of the most important pieces of personnel data you use, and if your enterprise security team is diligent, they are likely to detect a compromise, allowing you some time to react appropriately.
Second, a breach of a secure internal server housing critical VPN tokens is much more difficult to compromise if the attackers are likely to need those same VPN tokens in the first place. Two-factor auth? Just do it!
Most important? The next time you have to download an important document on your smartphone in a crowded airport in Mumbai, you'll feel far more comfortable knowing you've done so over a two-factor enabled VPN.
Especially since the brilliant guys that hang out at NullCon may be traveling to the same conference as you and are waiting at your flight's gate.
Don Bailey is director of research at iSEC Partners.