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Mobile device management -- Controlling risks and costs for better security

As businesses become more reliant on mobile devices, the security risks and associated costs continue to rise, particularly because many employees don't understand that a mobile device contains critical information. In this tip, discover eight areas of risk associated with mobile devices and learn how better mobile device management can save money and guard against threats to enterprise data security.

Learn the eight areas of risk associated with mobile devices and how better mobile device management can save money and guard against threats to enterprise data security.

Moving mobile devices and PDA devices into the workforce really means a new sort of computer is being given away -- perhaps with very little supervision -- as that computer is not in a central location for most of its working life. These are early days for mobile network management and security. Many organizations still have no central team to manage mobile devices; they react to their current situation using existing network management teams. Consequently, many companies do not have adequate control over either the security of new mobile devices or the threats to company operations that mobile networking may present.

More on mobile management from Simon Forge
Mobile management for the enterprise: What we've learned

What seems to be a simple approval for a low-cost item may turn into a series of big headaches when cell phones are lost -- and at least 10% of them will be lost in an average year. It is notable that most large cities in the U.S. and Europe now have 10,000 to 15,000 mobile phones left in taxis every month.

Employees with mobile devices are actually carrying around eight areas of risk:

  1. Loss of general company data and files from these increasingly memory-laden devices.
  2. Key sales contacts could go to a competitor -- or be lost altogether.
  3. Physical loss of the device.
  4. The employee's time to recover from the loss -- which can be a few hours or a few days -- is usually worth far more than the replacement costs of the device and software.
  5. The time the network administration team needs to replace the device and handle the loss.
  6. Introduction of viruses and malware into the company's installed computer base, usually when synchronising PC and handset in the office and on a home PC.
  7. Phone fraud of various types -- e.g., employees making unauthorized long-distance personal calls; this is less of a problem now because many companies accept that personal calling is going to happen, and corporate rate plans for bulk long-distance can cut the cost significantly. The co-operation of the mobile operator is required to control this.
  8. The use of such devices as means of stealing company information. The "inside job" on data theft can be pulled off using a wide variety of mobile devices, from PDAs to lowly MP3 players.

Thus, the corporate mobile management task is unlike a fixed network for voice or LAN-connected servers and PCs -- it is much harder. Mobile management support costs are up to 15 times as much as those for fixed data or voice networks, as the types of support required are so much more varied. These costs range from initial device configuration to negotiating company-wide mobile carrier contracts. Devices next have to be updated, accounted for and replaced, with new applications being added whenever ready and tested, possibly requiring further handset activation, end-user instruction, and so on.

So what should you do?

Several ways to improve security through mobile device management can be quickly outlined. One first step is to section up the databases into authorized segments by user, "rather like an orange," as one manager remarked. Each user may see only the selected partitions for which she/he is authorized. This requires structuring data access by permissions with a policy engine rather than by subject.

The next step is protection for a lost device. Now coming onto the market are management systems that to some extent take the responsibility for data protection from the employee and return it to the network manager. A number of systems can now destroy any data on a smartphone or PDA and also allow only authorized devices to attach to the network for both mobile and PC synchronizing activities. An increasing number of suppliers have taken up the challenge; their products either look at mobile networking as an extension of existing management systems or as a new field in itself (e.g., Securewave, Synchronica).

The final word

You can have the last say when devices are lost or stolen. Some of the latest models of mobile handsets can be switched to "scream mode" until their batteries run down.

About the author:
Simon Forge of Ptak, Noel & Associates applies more than 20 years of experience in information industries to his current projects in telecommunications and computing, specifically exploring new wireless and computing technologies and potential futures, outcomes and strategies for markets, products, companies, countries and regions. Forge has a Ph.D. in digital signal processing, as well as an MSc and a BSc in control engineering, all from the University of Sussex, U.K. He is a chartered engineer and M.IEE and sits on the editorial board of the journal Info.

This was last published in June 2007

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