BYOD can pose privacy risks to employees

Companies using MDM to oversee employee devices are collecting more information than employees realize

Companies that use remote device management software to oversee employee devices used for business have the ability to collect a lot more information than employees may be comfortable with, according to a report released today.

"The intent of these MDM solutions is not to spy on employees, but to monitor for things like malware and general security," said Salim Hafid, product manager at Bitglass, which produced the report.

But if the company wants to, these tools provide the ability to do a lot more, he said. That includes seeing where the phone is located, what apps are on the phone, and even what websites the user was accessing.

"We were able to see virtually all the activity on the device," he said. "We could see that some of our employees search for health information on the web."

The Bitglass employees who participated in the study were all volunteers, he added.

Bitglass researchers were also able to intercept personal messages sent through Gmail, Messenger, and other apps, as well as passwords to social media and bank accounts.

"MDM in general is used to make sure that the device is secure and the data on that device is protected," he said. "What we set out to do is understand the data privacy implications, the extent to which it could be used if someone malicious in it who wants to see more user behavior."

The study included several MDM vendors, but Hafid declined to disclose their names.

"I can tell you that a lot of these capabilities are actually universal across all major MDM solutions," he said.

He added that it was unlikely that a malicious outsider could tap into the information, since it requires access to the secure administrative portal.

Another worrying feature of MDM platforms is the ability to do a remote wipe.

The software can wipe managed apps, or individual apps, or it can wipe the entire phone.

"It's something that organizations might want, but it puts personal data at risk," Hafid said.

One reason that a company might want to do a full wipe is if employees download company documents to non-managed applications.

But it could result in employees losing personal photos and personal messages.

"Say you leave the organization and your employer wants to makes sure that there's no corporate data you take with you," he said. "They may wipe the device without notifying you."

In addition, many MDM solutions allow companies to restrict smartphone features such as iCloud backups.

"That of course poses an additional danger to personal data," he said.

In fact, 57 percent of company employees said they do not participate in company BYOD programs because they don't want the IT department to see their personal data and applications, according to a Bitglass report released last year.

"A lot of employees don't want their employers to have visibility or control over their device," said Hafid.

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