Keys to the Kingdom

Agency IT managers are scrambling to prevent employees' personal phones and tablets from creating new openings for hackers.

Ready or not, iPhones, iPads, Droids and other personal wireless devices are invading the federal workplace. Almost no formal security policies or procedures are in place yet to protect agency networks from the external threats these mainstream electronics can introduce.

Downloaded apps turn out to be malicious. Employees log off secure networks but neglect to disable the Wi-Fi feature, opening the door to intruders. The potential for compromising agency data is enormous.

Information technology managers are doing a lot of fast footwork to concoct guidelines for employee-owned gadgets and padlock the government-owned ones they are beginning to hand out.

In the meantime, experts say the safest way for managers to downgrade the security risk is to at least know where the agency's sensitive data is located, even if it's not where it's supposed to be.

"The government rule is, first of all, have your data sorted" into classified, sensitive and public information, "and then it doesn't matter if it's on your server or out on the field," says W. Hord Tipton, former Interior Department chief information officer, who now serves as executive director at the security training organization (ISC)2.

The Agriculture Department, for example, has deployed a suite of security sensors that monitor traffic on its internal network to have a complete picture of all data movement and access across the entire organization. The department does not yet have standards in place for personal wireless devices but is testing security controls on several thousand government-issued iPads, iPhones and other non-BlackBerry smartphones.

"There are a series of policy challenges related to personally owned devices that still need to be resolved at the enterprise level that preclude the use of personally owned devices to hold or process federal data, especially sensitive data," Agriculture CIO Chris Smith says. Those obstacles include federal records management requirements and the need to ensure virus protections are up to date.

USDA is contemplating securing employee-owned smartphones and other mainstream gadgets though technologies such as virtual desktop infrastructures, or VDIs, which mimic a secure PC environment. A remote server delivers the secure environment to a device over the Internet. The department also is trying PC-on-a-stick thumb drives that upload the agency's operating systems and data to smartphones. "We are adopting and piloting these technologies in a methodical and strategic fashion, keeping participation confined to small numbers while working through all the facets of security prior to making them a public offering," Smith notes.

Interior is grappling with the related predicament of how to lock down devices that are supposed to be easy to open up and start. For now, the department is attempting to block personal phones and tablets from connecting to its network at all, by using firewalls and other standard mechanisms that track the transfer of data, officials say. To satiate the staff's need for constant connectivity, Interior stocks an inventory of roughly 2,000 government-issued tablet computers, including iPads and PlayBooks.

But Interior officials realize employees want to be able to work from one device-the one they carry everywhere for almost every other life activity. So, they are asking themselves the tough questions about potential security standards for personal electronics: If employees are using their own devices to access their department email, is it appropriate to wipe the entire device when they leave the federal government? How do you prevent government network surveillance systems from logging an employee's personal information, app use and Web browsing? And then how do you prevent bosses from making personnel decisions based on that private online activity?

"The issue of government-furnished equipment or personal equipment is one that the department will continue to assess as it matures its telework program and the widespread personal use of these devices," Interior spokesman Drew Malcomb says.

Some possible approaches to securing employee-owned devices include enforcing the use of complex passwords and turning on features that erase lost devices, he adds. "Couple this with a strategy to protect data using either strong encryption or rights management, [and] you create a system in which the ownership of the devices is not relevant," Malcomb says. As agencies choose between distributing government-owned gadgets and requiring personnel to bring their own devices, cost may become a factor, says Dave Marcus, director of security research for McAfee Labs. It's cheaper to let employees use their own devices, which are probably more functional than what's in the federal marketplace anyway, he says. The expense of adding on enterprise security software would not amount to the price of a whole new phone.

The downside is that the agency then has to manage a hodgepodge of devices. Tipton says agencies that can afford to dole out phones and tablets should do so. "My theory is you're just asking for trouble when you're allowing personal devices to come in," he says. "We ran into this with telework, and I don't know if anyone really resolved the issue other than by giving them a government computer. But I could never afford to do that from the Interior point of view."

In the near future, some protocols for mobile devices could appear in FedRAMP, the cloud security standards under development that are aimed at green-lighting individual online products for governmentwide use. Cloud computing and mobile computing often are one and the same. In fact, cloud services frequently are more suitable for mobile electronics than traditional on-premise systems, says Alan Proctor, former Federal Trade Commission chief information officer.

"That means that a new generation of controls needs to be identified that protects the data, not the device," adds Proctor, who now heads the federal product team at SpringCM, a cloud services firm that supplies content management services remotely for some of these mainstream electronics. "Traditional controls focused on access control, removable media, etc.," he says. "Mobile controls need to focus on encryption [scrambling the data to render it indecipherable], strong authentication and policy controlled by centralized delivery channels."

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