Remotely wiping a device after it has been compromised is like burning down your house after it's been robbed; if there has already been a data breach, a remote wipe won't do any good.
Many in IT believe that nothing beats remote wipe when they suspect that sensitive data has been compromised. It certainly seems like the easy solution to the problem. When a user reports that his mobile device containing sensitive information has been lost or stolen, IT sends a signal to wipe the device. The data is gone and seemingly protected from theft. Case closed.
But the sad truth is that remotely wiping a device does not guarantee data security. Remote wipe may help IT administrators feel better in the middle of a crisis, but it's often applied too late to be of any real value in protecting enterprise secrets. Plus, employees who use their own devices for work will be irritated when their personal information is destroyed.
Why doesn't remote wipe do much good? By the time a user realizes that his device has been lost or stolen and IT sends the commands necessary to perform the wipe, the data may already be compromised. In most cases, casual loss of a mobile device doesn't result in the theft of valuable data. Rather, the device ends up in Lost and Found or it might even be returned to the owner. And casual thieves -- those just seeking items to sell for cash -- usually don't care about the top-secret business plan.
Professional information thieves targeting a particular individual, however, know all the tricks. They will remove the device battery and may operate on the device in shielded chambers that a wipe and other signals can't penetrate.
Real security demands much more than remote wipe in business settings. Even when IT is certain that sensitive data has fallen into enemy hands -- as opposed to merely suspecting it -- it's really too late for any kind of wipe. Compromised data will remain such forever.
Going beyond remote wipe
To effectively stop data from being compromised, IT needs to go back to the basics. First, companies need a written security policy describing what data is deemed sensitive, who can have access to it and under what circumstances, and what to do in the event of breach. Next, I recommend the encryption of sensitive information wherever it is in residence, whether that be on servers or handsets. It's also a good idea to encrypt sensitive data -- and have strong authentication via some form of identity management -- while it's in transit, such as over the virtual private network.
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Finally, I recommend applying an IT strategy based on cloud and Web services or desktop virtualization, or a strategy that uses mobile application and information management. With application and information management, sensitive data is "containerized" or "sandboxed" to keep it -- and the apps that use it -- isolated and under the control of IT.
Mobile application and information management tools allow for a selective wipe of just the container. More important, they give IT a high degree of control over who can access sensitive data and under what circumstances. Note also that some mobile device management may be required to enforce local policies, such as firewall settings, anti-malware requirements and disabling USB and other ports as necessary.
Still, there is no such thing as absolute security. Careful testing and re-testing of security tools, as well as regular consciousness-raising among authorized users, is very important. Companies may even want to perform background checks on individuals with access to particularly sensitive data.
The bottom line is that although remote wipe may make admins feel like they're doing something proactive to protect data, it's of little value for actually keeping data from high-level information thieves.