The vulnerability of mobile computing and communications is the big but sometimes hidden enterprise security threat. The best business security strategy: think “end-to-end.”

Enterprises today spend upwards of $4.5 billion annually on IT security. The software industry’s transition from mainframe computing to a client-server model to the Internet-based computing has brought with it a steady increase in the number and types of security threats. As we move forward, mobility is adding to existing IT security challenges by introducing a “new” set of security concerns for IT managers.

Employees can carry up to 4GB of sensitive enterprise data on a flash drive that is easily lost.

Mobility challenges

The growth of mobility has spawned several security challenges. Mobile devices are increasingly being connected to corporate networks to retrieve, store and transfer gigabytes of confidential data. Mobile handhelds are compact, portable and easily lost or stolen, and hence, put sensitive information at risk. The proliferation of insecure WLAN (WiFi) networks – including offices, homes, cafes, hotels, airports, etc. – pose a further threat to corporate security. Enterprises and their chief security officers need to protect themselves against the mobile environment that is cultivating new classes of viruses, worms, Trojans and spyware. SMS/mobile spam causes unnecessary user downtime and cost, and device features like Bluetooth, camera, video, removable cards (SD, compact flash), etc. make it easier for unauthorized individuals to access corporate information. In the context of all those threats, security is burdened with increased reporting, audits, and ongoing monitoring required by regulatory mandates such as SEC requirements, Sarbanes-Oxley accounting procedures, the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act and the Payment Card Industry (PCI) data security standard.

PDAs can contain contact information and links to corporate e-mail and network connections.

What’s at stake?

The costs associated with security attacks or data losses vary for different businesses. In general, security lapses can result in negative financial impacts, legal liability, loss of productivity due to downtime, costs related to response and recovery and, ultimately, the loss of sensitive customer and/or corporate information. Currently, 28 states require security breaches to be disclosed, so companies that compromise their customer data also face the risk of losing credibility and customers. In fact, according to a survey of the security breach victims in the U.S. (conducted by Ponemon Institute LLC), 20 percent of respondents said that they had terminated their relationship with the company in charge of the compromised data. Another 40% said they would at least consider terminating a relationship in the case of a security breach. The potential customer ramifications and credibility risks around protecting sensitive data can keep IT managers up at night.

As employees become more mobile, the security risks escalate, leaving many security executives feeling a high level of discomfort around the vulnerability of critical data. In some cases, this has led to managers’ decisions against the adoption of new mobile solutions that could ultimately improve productivity and business performance. When such a decision is made for the sake of security, a new risk of “competitive disadvantage” can emerge very quickly.

Unfortunately, the complexity of the mobile ecosystem (multiple operating systems, device types, networks, access locations, carriers, etc.) makes the security choices very difficult and diverse for the enterprise. Companies are also forced to choose from a wide selection of mobile security vendors, which can further complicate the approach and the eventual solution. With such a complex environment around mobile security, the choices and solutions can become overwhelming. In that context, there are suggestions for enterprises concerned about their mobile security needs.

Improving mobile security

Remember that security is a process, not a product. Technology may play a vital role in security considerations, but enterprises should not ignore the application of these technologies – user awareness and policy management, training and enforcement are the keys to making a security policy successful. Strong policies help mitigate risks caused by human error. According to a Computing Technology Industry Association survey, corporate staff human error is the top cause of security breaches. Last year, 59.2 percent of those polled in the survey attributed their last security breach mainly to human error.

Armed with that knowledge, it is important to have current policies and end-user agreements in place to help avoid inadvertent security lapses where mobile workers have not been educated on security best practices. A good example is when an enterprise deploys sophisticated technology with the capability of deactivating a lost or stolen device. If the end-user has not been made aware of the capability and the policy of immediately reporting a lost unit, then the company may lose valuable time in trying to secure the potentially compromised data.

Security is as strong as its weakest link. Enterprises should think about mobile security from an “end-to-end” point of view. Enterprise security policies should be comprehensive and should address mobile devices, applications, networks and user policies.

The best place to start is with centrally managed policies, thus avoiding the kind of hodge-podge development of security practices that marked the original increase in mobility. Policies and centrally managed solutions are far more effective at safeguarding a network than the use of several different point-solutions that do not interact or overlap well.

Enterprises need not spend millions of dollars cobbling together multiple security solutions. Enterprises should conduct a security assessment that identifies threats, vulnerabilities, non-compliance areas, etc., and develop a risk level matrix with countermeasure plans for each risk. A comprehensive security assessment will provide a business case analysis on recommended security solutions. This process can help establish priorities and avoid unnecessary expenditures.

Security lapses due to use of mobile devices can create financial, legal, productivity and privacy threats, according to Sunil Jain of Sprint Enterprise Mobility.

When, not if approach

Security for devices is a question of when, not if. Historically, security has often been an after-thought. WLAN security is a good example in that the security issues around WLAN were not taken seriously until the technology became mainstream. Today, the hacker and IT communities still largely ignore the issues around mobile device security because overall device shipments and user numbers are still relatively small. In 2005, smart phones comprised only 6 percent of overall mobile device sales. As smart device shipments increase from an estimated 50 million in 2005 to around 167 million in 2009, the security problems will compound. Handheld devices are vulnerable to viruses, worms, Trojans and spyware, and lately mobile malware has been on the rise. McAfee predicts 726 mobile viruses by the end of 2006 compared to only 226 in 2005. Some of these mobile malwares like Cardtrap and Padobot can even spread from PCs to mobile phones. Realizing that threats will only increase, businesses that are looking at mobilized processes should also be looking at getting out ahead of these threats.

Regulatory compliance, as mentioned above, is another area of concern. For institutions, compliance is expensive and often ambiguous. Regulations are seldom prescriptive in terms of solutions for security and compliance. While some regulations such as PCI data security standard clearly recommend best practices for wireless deployments, most do not demand specific wireless security measures. However, the general themes of relevant regulatory mandates require adequate internal control of mobility practices. More often than not, this means protecting confidential information, establishing disclosure policies, providing adequate risk monitoring and risk mitigation processes, as well as overall corporate accountability for sensitive information.

Overall, the proliferation of mobility has created an environment in which critical data is more easily accessed. This has resulted in many tangible business benefits. The proliferation of mobility will further accelerate as businesses discover new ways to mobilize their operations and transform the ways in which their employees, applications, assets and machines are connected. However, the advantages come with risks and complexities that need to be managed collectively. The most successful mobilized companies are taking this “when, not if” scenario very seriously as they assess vulnerabilities and mitigate the risks associated with their mobility plans and initiatives.