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Vulnerabilities / Threats

8/23/2010
04:45 PM
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Mobile Devices Threaten Enterprises From Within

Security researchers are focusing increasingly on mobile devices. The result: your next insider attack could come from a smartphone

Today, nearly every office worker carries a mobile phone into work. Much of the time, the devices are more advanced smartphones, such as Android-based phones, Blackberry devices, or Apple's iPhone. The employees almost never consider the security implications of bringing connected devices behind a company's firewall.

Yet the trend has not escaped the notice of chief security officers and information-technology administrators. Smartphones are becoming prolific within enterprises, but the security teams don't really have a handle on how to secure the devices, says John Hering, CEO of Lookout, a mobile security firm.

"They have spent a vast amount of resources in terms of dollars and time to defend their corporate networks and the traditional network security perimeter, but the mobile device … has trusted access to the very critical data at the soft and chewy center of the company," Hering says. "It's almost a Trojan horse into the enterprise itself.

In other words, insider attacks may come not from a malicious employee, but from an ignorant employee bringing a compromised device into the workplace, Hering says.

The conclusion is not a surprise: Over the past year, security researchers and attacker have increasingly focused on smartphones and other mobile platforms. The attention highlighted a bevy of potential attack scenarios, including information leakage and outright control of the personal devices.

Moreover, mobile phones have become the driving force of a trend known as user-driven IT. Just as university graduates brought early e-mail habits to companies, consumers are bringing their mobile devices to work and expecting IT administrators to figure out the security implications.

Smartphones are valuable devices to be controlled by an attacker. They have personal data, microphones, and GPS systems -- an attacker could use the devices as their own personal surveillance system within a company. For example, if an attacker targets a data center administrator, they can find out where the servers are in the building, or by targeting a participant at an executive meeting, they could turn on the microphone and listen in, says Ahmed Datoo, vice president of marketing for Zenprise, a mobile-security firm.

"The types of security vulnerabilities that exist with a smart phone are very unique and very dangerous, if left unsecured," says Datoo.

For example, much less attention is paid to security on mobile websites, so attackers may start focusing on that channel as a way to attack smart phones and penetrate a company from behind the firewall. Stanford University researchers found that a class of vulnerabilities that can be used to attack through a users' browser -- while well known among Web developers -- remains largely unpatched among websites built for mobile devices. "Mobile website security should be taken as seriously as non-mobile website security--otherwise, bad things can happen," says Elie Bursztein, a post-doctoral fellow at Stanford University's Security Lab.

One of the biggest challenges is that IT administrators often do not know what mobile devices are connected to their networks, says Zenprise's Datoo. Enterprise security teams should make sure to employ policies that will identify devices on their networks and make sure that the devices have the appropriate security policies in place, he says.

Bringing smartphones into compliance with corporate policies is important, agrees Kevin Mahaffey, CTO of Lookout. Companies should make sure that their users patch their devices and download any updates to remove malicious applications. Moreover, while Apple and Google are good at policing their application marketplaces, users should only download apps from trusted third parties, he says.

"There is a little bit of an asymmetry here in that it is much easier for attackers to bring their knowledge over to mobile, and we are still very early in terms of defenses and strong policy and strong software to enable us to stay safe," Mahaffey says.

Overall, just as the state of the art in attacks on mobile devices is a moving target, so is defense, says Lookout's Hering.

"Trying to find a way to manage, monitor and secure consumer devices in the corporate environment is really the challenge, and we hope to get it solved, because today, it isn't," Hering says.

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