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Dual persona tackles Android device security concerns

Enterprise IT is still seeking ways to ensure Android device security. Dual persona can protect business apps and data from the risks of personal device use.

As Android sales climb, employers face growing pressure to address Android security problems. One novel way is to use dual persona technology.

Employers can enable Androids for business use in many ways, from lightweight options like Microsoft's Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) to heavy-handed mobile device management (MDM) services. Between these extremes are mobile content management (MCM) and mobile application management. These tools range in functionality, but all typically result in commingled business and personal apps running on the same device.

In contrast, dual persona turns an Android into a split-personality smartphone or tablet that functions as two self-contained devices -- one for business tasks and another for personal use. Employees get full control over the personal persona, where all apps, data and activities remain invisible to their employer. Simultaneously, IT gets full control over the work persona, including the ability to ensure OS integrity, enforce security policies and remotely install enterprise apps. Dual persona also prevents business apps from being compromised by a user's unapproved personal apps.

How dual persona works

Android dual persona products are now available from a handful of companies, including Cellrox, Samsung (Knox) and Intel (Device Protection for Android). Some companies use Android hypervisor technology to run two (or more) isolated instances of the Android OS. Others use multiple isolated Android user spaces, supported by a single OS instance.

Any employer looking for new ways to balance enterprise security and personal privacy on Android devices should take a dual persona solution out for a test drive.

For example, Cellrox ThinVisor slips in between a single Android kernel and ordinary Android apps that run in either the personal or the work persona. Each persona isolates processes and private data while sharing hardware features, read-only code and data in accordance with IT-defined policies. Each persona is separately configured and managed, just like any Android device. At any time, one persona is in the foreground, while the other runs concurrently in the background. The user switches between personas by tapping the notification bar or home button or widgets. Defined events can also trigger persona switch, such as receiving an incoming message.

Dual persona use cases

Dual persona strategies are evolving as vendors find new ways to improve performance, broaden device support and overcome risks such as those posed by user-installed kernels.

For example, Samsung's entire Knox 2.0 package is only available on certain Samsung smartphones, but select pieces of Knox (such as Knox Workspace and SE Android) were integrated into Google's Android L operating system. In contrast, it can be challenging for third-party dual persona vendors such as Cellrox to stay completely up to date on all device offerings. Cellrox can run on Android devices from many manufacturers, but not all of them, because Android OS fragmentation requires continuous testing and tweaking to ensure device compatibility.

As a result, dual persona will likely never be a panacea; employers would be better off carefully making dual persona part of a broader MDM strategy. Corporate-owned, personally enabled (COPE) devices are the best fit, since IT can handpick compatible devices, but use dual persona to safely facilitate personal use. Bring your own device (BYOD) setups can also benefit from dual persona, but only when workers play ball and choose devices that are compatible with their employer's dual persona strategy.

Dual persona benefits

From IT's perspective, dual persona is intriguing because it enables strict compartmentalization and custom configuration for data leak protection, all without any risk of impacting personal apps or data. IT can also set policies to control dual persona behavior. Employers should evaluate policy needs and research which dual persona offering can meet those expectations.

From the user's perspective, dual persona offers flexibility and privacy. For example, each employee has the ability to protect their personal persona with a PIN or password. Employees remain free to install apps that haven't been vetted by IT, and there's no risk of destabilizing the company's enterprise apps. Workers will also be encouraged to hear that MDM control over their work persona cannot result in IT wiping personal data or snooping into personal texts and call history.

However, users must train themselves to recognize when they switch between personas.  Employees using a dual persona phone can set cues and other customizations as subconscious reminders. For example, answering a call from a business phone number might auto-switch to the work persona, where different wallpaper, widgets and even ringtones help to differentiate that environment from the personal persona.

Bottom line

Dual persona is not for every business environment. Some companies will find that they can meet their simple Android BYOD needs through EAS or a combination of basic MDM lock/wipe plus MCM. However, more extensive and higher-risk Android use cases warrant careful consideration of all available alternatives, including dual persona.

Ultimately, dual persona delivers very clean, strict separation -- not just for business apps and their data, but between all device activities, including calls, texts and locationing. As dual persona evolves to multi-persona, this may also be a good fit for multiuser Android tablets and users with more than one employer (e.g., consultants). These are arguably niche needs, but they are difficult to meet with other IT-managed strategies. That means dual persona, or whatever it evolves into, is likely here to stay. Any employer looking for new ways to balance enterprise security and personal privacy on Android devices should take a dual persona product out for a test drive.

This was last published in December 2014

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Have you considered splitting employees’ Android devices into self-contained work and personal personas?
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We haven't just considered it - in several cases, we've done it. It's not ubiquitous within our company yet, and I'm not sure it's going to be, but there's a definite value to having separate personas when it comes to allowing people to bring their own devices. Unfortunately, some of our people are still using iOS, and we'd rather not force them to switch phones. I definitely see this as being more common in the future.
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I'm a bit foggy. Is there actually a way to partition BYOD devices so they can be used at work and then personally? This would be fantastic! I know laptops can have divergent accounts, but I didn't realize it was possible with phones and tablets. I'll be watching this...I like the possibility a lot!
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Blackberry 10 has had this feature and security for several years - now it's such a revelation??????
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It may not be new, but given the wide use of Android devices it's certainly relevant. Many orgs are moving off BlackBerry, from what I've seen.  
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If this is a reality for Android, this makes the idea of BYOD more appealing (I'd much prefer different account partitions rather than try to separate what data gets used where).
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I agree with Michael and Ben.
jjw5018 - BB10 Balance is a container and not virtualization, thus separation is limited.
The wide use of Android devices emphasizes the need to make it 'corporate grade' without compromising its cool functionality. I invite you to read "Mobile Virtualization: The Future Of Security" at - http://www.networkcomputing.com/wireless-infrastructure/mobile-virtualization-the-future-of-security/a/d-id/1318324

Disclaimer: I'm am the CEO of Cellrox, a company that specialized in mobile virtualization and was mentioned in both articles.
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