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NSA mobile security plan could be roadmap for all mobile device security

Security research firm Securosis has started a series of blog posts about how to protect enterprise data on Apple iOS smartphones.  Securosis’ Rich Mogull explains that companies are increasingly feeling pressure from employees to support iOS. But how does the IT security team ensure the protection of sensitive enterprise data on devices they have little control over?

According to Mogull:

The main problem is that Apple provides limited tools for enterprise management of iOS. There is no ability to run background security applications, so we need to rely on policy management and a spectrum of security architectures.

Mogull’s first post in the series lays out the security capabilities in iOS and highlights some of the technical reasons why the iPhone has been relatively immune to malware and other threats.

It’s clear that a tightly controlled mobile device will have to use a combination of external security technologies and internal data protection capabilities. The NSA’s “Mobility Capability Package” (.pdf), a report outlining the first phase of its recommended Enterprise Mobility Architecture, could be the blueprint needed for the private sector, according to some experts I’ve recently talked to.

The NSA unveiled the report during the RSA Conference 2012 and held a session outlining its secure mobility strategy. While it’s extremely restrictive, I think the recommendations appear to be the way most of the security industry is headed.

Among the reports key recommendations:

  • All mobile device traffic should travel through a VPN.
  • All devices should use AES 256 full disk encryption.
  • Tight controls on the use of Bluetooth, WiFi, voicemail and texting.
  • GPS disabled except for emergency 911 calls.
  • Ability to prevent users from tethering.
  • Ability to disable over-the-air software updates.

A virtual private network (VPN) establishes a secured path between the user equipment and the secured access networks with a second layer of encryption required to access classified enterprise services.

Bruce Schneier highlighted the NSA mobile security guidance document recently on his blog post and eyed the VPN tunnel recommendation.  “The more I look at mobile security, the more I think a secure tunnel is essential,” Schneier wrote.

Full disk encryption (FDE) is currently available for Android devices. FDE for Apple devices currently falls short, but DARPA has been working on this, and according to Winn Schwartau, who serves as chairman of the Board of Directors at Atlanta-based mobile device security firm, Mobile Active Defense, well-implemented FDE for iOS devices is “weeks” away.

Apple introduced data encryption capabilities in iOS 4.0. As part of its data protection feature, Apple is enabling mobile application developers to store sensitive application data on-disk in an encrypted format. The first iteration only encrypted the files when the device was in a locked state. The phone-unlock passcode served as the encryption key. In iOS 5.0, security levels were added for protected files.

Under the NSA plan, smartphone users would be required to have an installed initialization program, which would immediately launch as soon as the smartphone is turned on. The program would check the device’s OS and ensure only authorized applications and operating system components are loaded. The device owner would be required to enter a PIN or passphrase to unlock the phone and then – as a second factor – a password would be needed to decrypt the device’s memory.

Once the memory is unencrypted, the user then starts the VPN, which establishes a tunnel from the device to the infrastructure. The device is then registered with the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) server and a TLS connection is tunneled through the VPN connection.

Phone calls made by a smartphone user would be routed by the cellular carrier to mobility infrastructure maintained by the government. This device must have already established a secure VPN connection to be accessible, according to the paper.

To be clear, some of the capabilities recommended by the NSA will be easier to develop for Android devices since Google’s code base is publicly available. Under its Project Fishbowl, the agency is developing a hardened smartphone with its security requirements using a modified version of Android. But other capabilities, including FDE and the requirement of a VPN will be feasible and justifiable on any mobile platform. Exactly how this can be implemented, and more importantly, how it can be enforced by IT security teams, is an issue still being addressed by researchers. Mobile device management products typically require software running on the device and nearly all the technologies require end-user interaction and can be bypassed.

It’s going to be fun watching more robust mobile device security technologies emerge.

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