Geofencing could add security layer for mobile devices

Geofencing could offer an extra layer of security but some worry about privacy and battery life

Geofencing could offer an extra layer of security but some worry about privacy and battery life

Geofencing technology -- tracking the location of a mobile device -- could offer an extra layer of security for enterprises trying to manage both company-owned and employee-owned devices. However, the technology can also raise worries about privacy and battery life.

Extra layer of security

Last fall, Romania-based CoSoSys Ltd. added geofencing to its mobile device management software, tracking location via GPS, Wifi and Bluetooth beacons.

But the first major use of the technology wasn't for companies tracking employees -- but for companies tracking visitors.

CoSoSys has customers in the high-tech industry who want to ensure that visitors can't take pictures when they enter particular secured areas. Typically, they ask visitors to leave their mobile devices at the door, to put tape over the camera lenses.

"Or visitors can agree to have a client installed that will make sure that those features are disabled based on the geofence," said CoSoSys founder and CEO Roman Foeckl.

This is particularly useful for frequent visitors, such as contractors, he said.

The system works because it doesn't just rely on the GPS location, but also uses local beacons to get a very precise idea of where the device is located.

A similar approach could work in Wall Street firms where a Chinese firewall is supposed to be in place between certain departments. The CoSoSys geofencing technology can tell which part of a building the employee is in.

"Is there certain data that is not supposed to be accessed on the device while they have the possibility to meet people from other areas?" he asked.

This is not currently a regulatory requirement, he added, but might soon become one as the technology becomes more commonly available.

A more common application is to use geofencing to control access.

"For example, it can be used to whitelist locations that authorized devices can be used from," said Talbot Harty, CEO at Fremont, Calif.-based DeviceAuthority, Inc. "We have a few government agency projects underway which use this capability."

Harty added that geo-fencing can be combined with other security elements, such as timing, to enforce more granular security restrictions.

For example, a device might be allowed to access an application only from a particular location, and only during working hours.

Companies that use tablets to hold sensitive information could also benefit. Say, for example, a company could use tablets to hold inventory data in a warehouse.

"Geofencing can be used to 'brick' a device if it leaves the premises," said David Goldschlag, SVP of Strategy at San Jose, Calif.-based Pulse Secure, LLC.

The convenience factor

Beyond restricting -- or allowing -- access, geofencing also offers the potential for some convenient, time-saving functionality.

"Employees could use location functionality to access client data for a client whom they are about to visit," said Philip Casesa, director of IT at Clearwater, Florida-based International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium. "Or they could be automatically connected to the corporate LAN when in proximity of a company facility."

And location tracking could also be useful if there was an emergency, and life-saving services needed to be dispatched to the employee's location, he added.

Geofencing could also be useful for corporate board meetings, said Brian Cleary, chief strategy officer at Boston-based bigtincan, a mobile content management company.

"Presentations or sensitive documents can be shared as board members walk into the meeting room, and then once they leave the designated perimeters, those materials can be removed from the device," he said.

Privacy, battery life, and spoofing

Companies considering geofencing should be aware of the negatives, however, which go beyond the cost and time of installing the technology.

"GeoFencing has a number of hurdles to overcome," said (ISC)2's Caseca. "The first is the privacy issue. With GPS, the tracking of a device's location could be used to extrapolate employee activity outside of the work environment -- a situation most employees would find distasteful."

By its very nature, location data is difficult to anonymize, said Jean Taggart, senior security researcher at San Jose, Calif.-based Malwarebytes Corp.

Companies should make certain they have informed consent from their employees before rolling out the technology, she said.

"A delivery driver should know that the company phone has this functionality, and administrators should be completely upfront about what can done with the aggregated data," she said. "Geofencing a device can yield additional security, and at the same time can be tremendously intrusive. It is paramount that the end user understand the ramifications of this data collection."

Companies should also not rely too much on geofencing for security, said Charles Tendell, CEO at Denver-based Azorian Cyber Security.

"On certain devices, the GPS lock can be spoofed or locked," he said. "Using it as security only works if it's in conjunction with another measure."

Finally, there's the battery life issue. GPS is a major drain on today's smartphones.

"Most organizations like the concept of geofencing but find they either really don't have the need or their workforce is mobile and thus geofencing provides little value," said Adam Ely, CSO and co-founder at San Francisco-based Bluebox Security.

According to CoSoSys' Foeckl, however, these challenges can all be addressed.

In particular, some of the biggest problems come from relying too much on the GPS, and not using other location mechanism.

"If you rely on a second factor -- like proximity to some other devices, such as secure beacons that act as tokens -- that cannot be spoofed," he said.

Plus, the WiFi and Bluetooth-based approaches have less of a drain on the battery life.

But privacy concerns are a significant issue, he added, more so in some jurisdictions than others.

"Germany is a big market for us, and there we have very much the workers' unions that are challenging us on these questions," he said. "In Germany, if a company has to make use of the GPS data, it needs to require a representative of the workers' union and someone from the IT department to look the information up."

Foeckl said that CoSoSys works with customers' requirements to protect the privacy of the device owners.

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