GCHQ spooks update PC and mobile security advice for public sector

CESG offers strengths and weaknesses guide

GCHQ's Communications-Electronics Security Group (CESG) has overhauled its guidance on how public sector organisations should secure 11 different mobile and desktop operating systems.

Platforms analysed for security weaknesses include the obvious options such as Windows 7 and 8, Apple OS X 10.8, Ubuntu 12.04, and even Google's Chrome OS 26. Mobile OSes are prominent; Android 4.2 (with a separate assessment of Samsung devices), BlackBerry 10.1, Windows 8 RT, Apple iOS6, and Windows Phone 8.

Assessed in conjunction with three independent security consultancies, the guidelines spell out a lot of what security managers will already know or have suspected; every platform has its weaknesses but mobile platforms have more than most.

For instance, CESG recommends that where possible mobile devices are used in conjunction with a private Access Point Name (APN) provisioned through dedicated SIMs and fixed IPsec connections back to the HQ.

This won't work where Wi-Fi is being used at the same time of course, and on that subject the guide is pragmatic. Some use of Wi-Fi was inevitable but the risks must be factored in, it said.

As to the individual security of each mobile platform, the advice is mixed. All have their flaws, mainly that their supplied encryption, VPN software, logging, policy control and sandboxing can't be vouched for.

It does point out weaknesses here and there, for example the lack of a central updating mechanism on the Windows 8 store which "may result in applications becoming outdated and exploitable by an attacker who could compromise data."

In Windows Phone it notes an identical issue as well as the lack of built-in whitelisting that would stop users from installing Store apps. Windows Phone 8 lacks a VPN capability. Android has similar issues.

"Finding the right balance between security and usability is critical for all organisations and we have put this principle at the heart of our work," commented director general for government and industry cyber security at GCHQ, Jonathan Hoyle.

"This guidance is the result of close collaboration between CESG's cyber security experts, our partners in industry and the public sector. It provides an excellent set of recommendations for anyone trying to enable secure business using the latest technologies in a cost-effective way."

Andy Davis, research director at NCC Group which carried out seven of the eleven technical assessments, agreed.

"This is a good example of the government engaging with industry to great effect. It's been made clear that cyber security is paramount for all public sector organisations, and guidelines such as these will go a long way to enforcing robust security measures.

"The government's approach has been very encouraging. They have looked at end user device security pragmatically, and have struck a good balance between risk and usability."

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