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EMM software on every device? MobileIron makes the case

During the legal battle between Apple and the FBI over gaining access to an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters in December’s terrorist attack, an unexpected development thrust enterprise mobile management software in general — and EMM vendor MobileIron specifically – into the limelight in one of the biggest technology controversies in recent years.

Earlier this year, Reuters reported that the San Bernardino county government had deployed MobileIron’s EMM software on many of the mobile devices used by county employees — but that former employee and San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizwan Farook was not among them. Had the EMM software been installed on the government-owned iPhone assigned to Farook, the county could have remotely unlocked the device and gained access to it.

Why wasn’t MobileIron’s EMM software on Farook’s iPhone? According to a San Bernardino County spokesperson who spoke to The Wall Street Journal, Farook, a restaurant health inspector, wasn’t the type of employee who had access to sensitive government data, and therefore the county determined that MobileIron’s EMM app wasn’t needed on that device.

I recently spoke with Ojas Rege, MobileIron’s vice president of strategy, who talked about the San Bernardino county government’s decision and the iPhone controversy in general.

“The county looked at [Farook’s] device at the time and decided since there wasn’t going to be any proprietary information or sensitive data on it, then it didn’t need the EMM software,” Rege said. “They decided they didn’t need to secure it, and instead they secured other devices.”

On the surface, that decision probably made perfect sense at the time — organizations focus their mobile security policies primarily around protecting the data and applications on the device. And if there are none on the device, then it doesn’t need EMM or mobile device management (MDM) software, the precursor to EMM.

But this approach doesn’t account for how an employee can abuse the device or misuse it for malicious purposes. “You wouldn’t give a new entry-level hire a laptop without any security software on it or the ability for IT to access to it,” Rege said.

And in terms of Farook’s iPhone, the issue becomes thornier; the county required that employees, including Farook, use a four-digit passcode to protect government-owned devices, and it set all phones to be wiped after 10 failed passcode attempts (this setting prevented law enforcement officials from accessing the device). Clearly the San Bernardino government was concerned about Farook’s iPhone potentially falling into the wrong hands, despite feeling the data on the device was not worth protecting — it just didn’t consider the wrong hands would belong to Farook.

That is a major oversight for enterprises and governments alike, according Rege; organizations need to consider more than just the data and applications on the device and prepare for how the device itself may be misused (for example, an employee could download fake or malicious apps that could spread malware to other enterprise devices or systems). And Rege has some data to back up his case for having EMM software on virtually every enterprise device.

The MobileIron Security Labs (MISL) division earlier this year released its first quarterly Mobile Security and Risk Review report for the fourth quarter of 2015, which included research culled from MobileIron customers. The report showed that 50% of enterprises survey had at least one device that was non-complaint with the company’s mobile security policies at any given time; typical reasons for non-compliance, according to the report, were:

  • Missing, lost or stolen devices (33% of MobileIron customers)
  • Employees removing passcode/PIN protection (22%)
  • Employees removing MDM apps (5%)

These types of non-compliance don’t necessarily mean an enterprise employee is using his or her device for malicious purposes. And to be sure, the chances that an enterprise will find itself in the same position as San Bernardino County – struggling to unlock a company iPhone that could have been used in a terrorist attack committed by one of its employees – is probably very low.

But there are other risks and threats for enterprises to consider. And given  how powerful mobile devices have become, and how the devices could be used for malicious purposes, Rege argued that enterprises should consider installing EMM software on every device, regardless of what information or applications are actually on the device or what type of employee is using it. Without it, an enterprise can’t gain visibility into suspicious user activity or prevent an employee from jailbreaking a device and disabling its passcode protections.

“The way you secure the desktop is going to be the way you secure mobile devices,” Rege said. “Mobile [adoption] sneaks up on people. Before you know, you have 1,000 iPhones.”

It’s unclear what effect the San Bernardino case will have on how enterprises view EMM and mobile security. But in the context of Farook’s iPhone and San Bernardino County’s decision not to install EMM on it, the MISL quarterly report ends with an eerily prescient note:

“For most enterprises, mobile security strategies are still maturing. Analytics based on the prevalence of identifiable vulnerabilities in mobile devices, apps, networks, and user behavior are key to developing better tactics and tools to reduce the impact of these vulnerabilities,” the report states. “Enterprises with an EMM solution in place generally have many of the tools they need; they just need to activate them.”