The Biggest Mobile Threat

— May 29, 2014

Nearly 2.2 billion smartphones and tablets will be sold to end users in 2014, according to Gartner, Inc. While security incidents originating from mobile devices are rare, Gartner predicts that by 2017, 75% of mobile security breaches will be the result of mobile application misconfiguration.

"Mobile security breaches are — and will continue to be — the result of misconfiguration and misuse on an app level, rather than the outcome of deeply technical attacks on mobile devices," said Dionisio Zumerle, principal research analyst at Gartner. "A classic example of misconfiguration is the misuse of personal cloud services through apps residing on smartphones and tablets. When used to convey enterprise data, these apps lead to data leaks that the organization remains unaware of for the majority of devices."

Mobile Attacks Mature
With the number of smartphones and tablets on the increase, and a decrease in traditional PC sales, attacks on mobile devices are maturing—by 2017, Gartner anticipates that the focus of endpoint breaches will shift to tablets and smartphones.

To do significant damage in the mobile world, malware needs to act on devices that have been altered at an administrative level.

"The most obvious platform compromises of this nature are ‘jailbreaking’ on iOS or ‘rooting’ on Android devices. They escalate the user's privileges on the device, effectively turning a user into an administrator," said Zumerle.

While these methods allow users to access certain device resources that are normally inaccessible (in fact, in most cases they are performed deliberately by users), they also put data in danger because they remove app-specific protections and the safe 'sandbox' provided by the operating system. They can also allow malware to be downloaded to the device and open it up to all sorts of malicious actions, including extraction of enterprise data. Rooted or jailbroken mobile devices also become prone to brute force attacks on passcodes.

MDM or EMM
Keeping mobile devices fixed in a safe configuration by means of a mobile device management (MDM) policy, supplemented by app shielding and 'containers' that protect important data, is the best defense.

Gartner recommends that IT security leaders follow an MDM/enterprise mobility management baseline for Android and Apple devices as follows:

  • Ask users to opt in to basic enterprise policies, and be prepared to revoke access controls in the event of changes. Users that are not able to bring their devices into basic compliance must be denied (or given extremely limited) access.

  • Require that device passcodes include length and complexity, as well as strict retry and timeout standards.

  • Specify minimum and maximum versions of platforms and operating systems. Disallow models that cannot be updated or supported.

  • Enforce a "no jailbreaking/no rooting" rule, and restrict the use of unapproved third-party app stores. Devices in violation should be disconnected from sources of business data, and potentially wiped, depending on policy choices.

  • Require signed apps and certificates for access to business email, virtual private networks, Wi-Fi and shielded apps.

IT also needs to use network access control methods to deny enterprise connections for devices that exhibit potentially suspicious activity.

“We also recommend that they favor mobile app reputation services and establish external malware control on content before it is delivered to the mobile device,” said Zumerle.

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