Beware of mobile agents compromising users’ privacy

By Dave Shephard, Bitglass Australia

Credit: ID 129369757 © Djvstock | Dreamstime.com

The rapid growth of enterprise mobility and a growing reliance on bring your own device (BYOD) means that most enterprises have to deal with the challenge of securing corporate data in the cloud.

Clearly, there is a balance to be struck between employee privacy, mobility, usability, and corporate security. While control and visibility are normally synonymous with data protection, these factors can have unintended side effects when it comes to mobile security.

In a bid to gain visibility and control over the mobile devices connecting to their enterprise networks, many firms have turned to mobile device management (MDM) tools. At first glance, this may seem like the right approach, however there are many downsides.

MDM solutions require the installation of an agent on to each personal device, whether that device is owned by an employee or by the firm. The installation of agent-based MDM tools on mobile devices creates a new and unexpected challenge around the issue of end-user privacy and data protection.

Most employees understand that by enabling MDM software on their personal devices, they are surrendering control over the data to their employer. What most people and businesses do not realise, is the extent to which this is the case. In a week-long experiment, my company set out to test the extent to which MDM could be used to monitor and control users’ smartphones and tablets without their knowledge.

Everyone  participating in the trial gave permission for the IT team to push MDM certificates to their devices, a practice commonly used to route data through the corporate network via a VPN or global proxy.

In just seven days, the MDM software gathered a range of information about employees’ interests, activities, identity, and relationships. So here’s a review of what information was accessed during the experiment:

  • By routing traffic through a global proxy, testers were able to capture employee browsing  activity.  Access to their web history meant that everything was visible - from Amazon product searches to sensitive healthcare queries, and even political affiliations and interests.
  • Researchers were able to break SSL encryption, using a global proxy and a trusted certificate. By re-routing SSL-based traffic unencrypted, access was gained to users’ personal email inboxes, social networking accounts and banking information. In other words, all secure logins were exposed as usernames and passwords used to log into sensitive accounts were transmitted to the server in plain text.
  • Researchers were able to to monitor outbound and inbound private communications using MDM extended to third-party apps – even on iOS, where some believe app sandboxing limits employer visibility into user behaviour. That meant it was possible to intercept personal communications sent through apps such as Gmail or Facebook Messenger and take an inventory of all the apps installed on an employee’s device.
  • Most employees were aware that administrators can easily track managed devices via GPS, but few realised this data could be used to monitor their behaviour. The research team was able to force the GPS to remain active in the background without notifying the user, also draining the battery power in the process.

In this way, researchers could review the location and out-of-work habits of employees – where they went after work, where they travelled on weekends, how frequently they visited the supermarket, and more.

  • MDM’s remote wipe capabilities represent a particular concern to employees, many of whom store personal contacts, notes, and other data on their devices. The MDM also allowed the research team to restrict backups, making a restore from iCloud or similar service impossible, leaving employees little recourse when trying to retrieve lost data.
  • Finally the team was able to use MDM to restrict core device functionality to lock down and secure devices, limiting user access to camera, apps like FaceTime on iOS, and basic features like copy and paste.

Clearly, companies need to review their approach to BYOD security and make it clear as to what data they are collecting and how it is being stored. A security solution like MDM fails to respect user privacy and should not be a common security practice. 

For this reason, organisations should look to take a different approach to the BYOD security challenge.

Just like MDM or MAM solutions, agentless BYOD software can also ensure total compliance with a range of regulations, while giving full visibility and audit capabilities into business data. Agentless solutions provide control over the flow of data to the device without the challenges around user experience and the logistics of deploying the agent. 

With agentless solutions being data-centric in nature, they also give employees the freedom to access corporate data from any device, without the intrusive privacy implications of MDM.     

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