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Feds Rank Human Error Alongside Malware as Top Mobile Security Threats

Flickr user SecDef

June 13, 2014 - In the midst of high-profile talks between U.S. and European officials over a unified response to the unrest in Kiev, State Department envoy Victoria Nuland was caught in a diplomat’s worst nightmare: a recording of her making disparaging remarks of her European counterparts was leaked to the press. Although Russian officials denied responsibility for the recording, there were widespread allegations that Nuland’s secure mobile phone had been bugged.

As federal agencies become more and more comfortable with greater numbers of employees using mobile devices in and out of the workplace, agency leaders should focus on preparing for a wide range of mobile threats.

A new study by Government Business Council and Samsung demonstrates that securing government communications will take technological, as well as cultural, shifts to mitigate the risks posed by electronic eavesdropping, mobile malware, and human error.

Two-thirds of federal respondents view viruses and malware as the leading threats to their agency’s mobile data, a figure likely indicative of the significant growth in mobile malware over the last half-decade, which can be used to steal sensitive information or track a user’s location. Cyber security experts estimate that malware incidents grew by 20 percent in 2013 and that anywhere from 60-98 percent of incidents target devices that run on Android.

Federal leaders also indicated other technological challenges include vulnerabilities in commercial mobile applications (55 percent) as well as intercepted communications (42 percent). Of the four million mobile apps tested by Webroot, more than 40 percent contained code that was considered “unwanted”, “suspicious”, or “malicious.”

Interestingly, respondents consider human error – for instance losing a mobile device or having it stolen (66 percent) or unauthorized transfer or disclosure (54 percent) – equally harmful. In addition, less than half of those surveyed believe they receive adequate training in mobile security.

Although training can’t always be touted as the solution, ensuring that all feds are aware of nature of the threat could help to avoid preventable mistakes. For example, a recent study by Mobile Work Exchange found that some federal employees routinely engage in risky behaviors like connecting work devices to public WiFi (31 percent), not using password protection (25 percent), and downloading personal mobile apps on work phones (15 percent).

This isn’t to say that technology can’t play a role as well. Mobile device management (MDM) solutions can help feds avoid some of the most common and costly mistakes by disabling specific features like the microphone or camera in sensitive locations, or through preventing the user from connecting to unsecured networks altogether.

While it may often prove useful, MDM raises a whole host of user privacy issues, particularly among feds who use their own device for agency functions under a BYOD policy. Some MDM features, like the ability to remotely wipe a device’s memory, remain deeply unpopular as they can result in the unauthorized deletion of personal data including email, contacts, and photos. These and other concerns are leading a trend in mobile technology toward containerization, which allows the device to switch back and forth between two parallel, secure interfaces for work and personal use.

But even with a sound MDM policy in place, human error is still possible. A 2012 GAO report highlighted an incident in which security officials responding to a lost iPhone attempted to remotely wipe the device, per its MDM solution, but failed to do so before accidentally severing the device’s link to the agency’s network. As a result, anyone who found the device and was able to bypass its basic password protection might have gained access to sensitive information.

The State Department incident reminds us that mobile devices remain a weak link in the broader cyber security chain. Threats come in many forms: cyber criminals, foreign governments, and even absent-mindedness. The key to countering these threats will be to implement both cutting-edge technologies and procedural reforms in such a way as to mitigate these risks, while preserving mobility as a tool to promote innovation in government.

To learn more about the current state of federal mobile security, download the full GBC insight report “Striking a Balance in Mobile Security."

- Chris Cornillie, Research Analyst


This post is written by Government Business Council; it is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Government Executive Media Group's editorial staff. For more information, see our advertising guidelines.


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