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Should we really trust those ‘trusted’ devices?

10 Mar 2020

Article by Bitglass Australia's Dave Shephard.

A false sense of security surrounds so-called trusted mobile devices and we need to rethink the ‘trusted’ device security model.

Mobile device adoption in the workplace has taken off in recent years as more companies realise the benefits that flexible working can bring. However, while anytime access to corporate apps and data can create a more productive workforce, it also creates new risks.

For years, businesses have used a trusted device security model as a blanket approach to allowing remote access to corporate information. As remote working grows in popularity, this model can no longer be considered completely secure or reliable.

A trusted device is simply a known device over which the organisation has some control and can assume some level of basic security. Typically, these devices feature a software agent that directs traffic to the corporate network so basic security checks such as a passcode and up-to-date operating system (OS) can be enforced.

Once these checks are completed, a trusted device will usually receive unrestricted network access so the user can retrieve all the information they need to work remotely. Typically, this means opening a VPN tunnel to the corporate network, which opens up unfettered access to services (e.g. active directory). The user may not even be utilising these services and this further increases the risk.

Historically, Windows-based computers were the corporate-issued device of choice, but in a mobile-first world, Apple’s iOS devices have become the enterprise go-to. iOS devices account for more than 80% of mobile devices used in enterprises worldwide, according to the second edition of the Mobile Security and Risk Review. Moreover, Android accounted for only 18% in the same study.

This preference for iOS devices in the workplace is not necessarily due to employee preference. iOS is often seen as a more secure option for the enterprise thanks in part to Apple’s closed OS and focus on security.

This has given rise to an implicit trust in Apple platforms among some IT managers – people who know the potential of enabling employee mobility, but are also well aware of the associated threats to their businesses. Apple’s walled garden approach to hardware, software and services, has created a distinct security advantage over other platforms. A recent Jamf study found that 90% of IT professionals say it's easier to secure Apple devices compared to mobile devices running other operating systems.

False sense of security?

While the majority of today’s mobile platforms are far more secure than legacy platforms, they all – Apple included – still remain vulnerable to loss, theft and cyber attacks that target the data on the device, rather than the device itself.

Employees with trusted devices often have access to some of the most secure data in an enterprise. Many government agencies and some of the world’s largest banks use the trusted device security model to give their employees access to sensitive information.

With this in mind, organisations should be more concerned about excess data sharing, stolen credentials, and achieving visibility over cloud data, as opposed to the singular focus on device security that some have.

In a bid to regain control over mobile devices, some organisations have turned to mobile device management (MDM) and mobile application management (MAM). These solutions install agents on mobile devices so they can be managed centrally by the IT department. Functions such as password protection, remote data wiping, and restrictions around unsecure network transmissions are all handled via a centralised platform.

Setup and maintenance of MDM software can create significant logistical headaches. IT teams have to manage the installation of software across thousands of devices and ensure these agents are regularly updated and maintained. There are also significant privacy issues where an organisation wants control over an employee’s personal device, which is fairly common in a bring your own device (BYOD) environment.

MDM solutions require placing a piece of software, or ‘agent’ on every employee’s personal device and using it to force all activity through the corporate network. While this allows IT to keep an eye on corporate data, it also means that the user's private banking activity, social networking, and a whole host of personal information is also proxied via the corporate network.

Not only does this impede the speed and functionality of some applications, but also most employees are not happy with their private data being viewed by corporate IT. A recent Bitglass study found that just 44% of employees would accept MDM or MAM on their personal phone. Many reject these solutions altogether – choosing to work around IT and thus putting corporate data at risk. Ultimately, by using MDM to make a device ‘trusted’, many corporations lose the trust of their employees.

In the same study, more than two-thirds (67%) of employees said they would be willing to participate in BYOD programs if their employer had the ability to protect corporate data but could not view, alter, or delete their personal data.

Instead of tracking all activity, companies should only track corporate data. Additionally, rather than controlling every aspect of a mobile phone, they should limit access from risky devices and destinations. This means that the user experience remains untainted, without impacting the security of a company’s sensitive data.

In order to meet these specific needs, companies must look towards ‘agentless’ BYOD solutions. Unlike MDM, agentless solutions do not install software agents on employee devices, and only monitor corporate data. This relatively new approach to mobile security emphasises the idea that it is no longer the ‘device’ that needs to be trusted and protected, but the data on each device.

Security reality check

The concept of trusted devices is overused and misunderstood, as trusted devices by definition are devices that a company has deemed ‘secure’. However, no device is completely secure from data leakage. Ultimately, most organisations have been lulled into a false sense that trusted devices, whether BYO devices or managed corporate devices, are secure.

IT can call a device ‘trusted’ or ‘untrusted’, but at the end of the day, it’s not the device enterprises should be looking to protect – it’s the sensitive corporate data.