Companies Should Embrace, Not Fear, The iPad

The mobile devices bring a different set of threats, but more employees on hard-to-hack tablets means better security
As workers bring their consumer devices to the workplace and expect to use them, many IT teams have raised concerns over the impact of mobile devices on a business' security.

The first reaction to the trend of so-called consumerization of IT has typically been to ban smartphones and tablets. Slowly, companies are opening up and attempting to better manage the devices. Yet perhaps they should speed things up -- at least in the case of iPads, says Josh Corman, director of security intelligence for Akamai, a provider of content acceleration and network infrastructure. Firms that switch employees from general-purpose computers to more limited devices, such as the iPad, could reap significant security benefits, he argues.

"When new IT comes out, it is not ipso facto secure -- consumer devices typically lag," Corman says. "But in this particular case, the adoption is of something that is inherently more defensible and inherently less complex."

Corman, formerly an analyst at the 451 Group, looks at the more tightly controlled software ecosystem for iPads and sees fewer avenues for attackers to compromise corporate networks. The devices are simpler than general-purpose computer workstations, and that's a benefit for security, he says.

"We know that complexity is the enemy of security, but we accept very high levels of complexity in our compute environments," Corman says.

The reasoning parallels that used by Microsoft when the company embarked on its mission to harden its Windows operating system. A measure of its progress was the reduction of the operating system's attack surface area, a measure of the ease of which attackers could get access to -- and exploit -- critical functions. By reducing the ability for attackers to inject code into the system, Microsoft reduced the attack surface area and increased security. Similarly, simpler software systems -- such as the iPad -- used as part of a comprehensive attempt to reduce complexity in a company's computational environment could have a similar effect.

As long as the tablets can satisfy worker requirements, then a company could garner security benefits, agrees Frank Andrus, chief technology officer for Bradford Networks, a network security provider. Not all tablets are created equal, however. The more open Android platform might not provide as many security benefits as Apple's more controlled product, he says.

"They can more easily be taken advantage of by an attacker," Andrus says.

The mobile devices, however, pose a greater hazard to sensitive company data, he says. Because employees carry smartphones and tablets to places they would not bring a laptop, companies do run a greater risk of exposing data on lost and stolen devices, he says.

In addition, unless a company completely converts its employees to tablets for work, they will just be adding another attack surface to its IT systems, not subtracting a more complex system, says Tim Matthews, a director of data-loss prevention products for Symantec.

"The problem is that you don't necessarily reduce the attack surface because you are not replacing your laptop yet," he says.

In an informal survey, Symantec found that almost two-thirds of IT professionals believe that using an iPad for work increased security risks.

To protect against the loss or theft of devices, and the resulting data leakage, companies should employee mobile device management (MDM), Matthews says. MDM software can also limit the applications installed on an employee-owned device and enforce role-based security on devices that attempt to connect to a corporate network.

In the end, allowing employees to use locked-down tablets, such as the iPad, can increase security, but only if the company pays attention to how employees are using the devices, he says.

"These guys are working on the plane or working at home, adding to a company's productivity, but they are doing so in an unprotected way," Matthews says. "And that's a problem."

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