5 mobile security threats you should take seriously in 2018

Mobile malware? Some mobile security threats are more pressing. Every enterprise should have its eye on these issues in the coming year.

Mobile security
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Mobile security is at the top of every company's worry list these days — and for good reason: Nearly all workers now routinely access corporate data from smartphones, and that means keeping sensitive info out of the wrong hands is an increasingly intricate puzzle. The stakes, suffice it to say, are higher than ever: The average cost of a corporate data breach is $21,155 per day, according to a 2016 report by the Ponemon Institute.

While it's easy to focus on the sensational subject of malware, the truth is that mobile malware infections are incredibly uncommon in the real world — with your odds of being infected significantly less than your odds of being struck by lightning, according to one estimate. That's thanks to both the nature of mobile malware and the inherent protections built into mobile operating systems.

The more realistic mobile security hazards lie in some easily overlooked areas, all of which are only expected to become more pressing in the coming year:

1. Data leakage

It may sound like a diagnosis from the robot urologist, but data leakage is widely seen as being one of the most worrisome threats to enterprise security as we head into 2018. What makes the issue especially vexing is that it often isn't nefarious by nature; rather, it's a matter of users inadvertently making ill-advised decisions about which apps are able to see and transfer their information.

"The main challenge is how to implement an app vetting process that does not overwhelm the administrator and does not frustrate the users," says Dionisio Zumerle, research director for mobile security at Gartner. He suggests turning to mobile threat defense (MTD) solutions — products like Symantec's Endpoint Protection Mobile, CheckPoint's SandBlast Mobile, and Zimperium's zIPS Protection. Such utilities scan apps for "leaky behavior," Zumerle says, and can automate the blocking of problematic processes.

Of course, even that won't always cover leakage that happens as a result of overt user error — something as simple as transferring company files onto a public cloud storage service, pasting confidential info in the wrong place, or forwarding an email to an unintended recipient. That's a challenge the healthcare industry is currently struggling to overcome: According to specialist insurance provider Beazley, "unintended disclosure" was responsible for a full 41 percent of data breaches reported by healthcare organizations in the first three quarters of 2017 — more than double the next highest cause.

For that type of leakage, data loss prevention (DLP) tools may be the most effective form of protection. Such software is designed explicitly to prevent the exposure of sensitive information, including in accidental scenarios.

2. Social engineering

The tried-and-true tactic of trickery is just as troubling on the mobile front as it is on desktops. Despite the ease with which one would think social engineering cons could be avoided, they remain astonishingly effective.

A staggering 90 percent of data breaches observed by Verizon's Enterprise Solutions division are the result of phishing, according to the company's 2017 Data Breach Investigations Report. While only 7 percent of users fall for phishing attempts, Verizon says, those gullible guys and gals tend to be repeat offenders: The company estimates that in a typical organization, 15 percent of users who are successfully phished will be phished at least one more time within the same year.

What's more, numerous bits of research suggest users are more vulnerable to phishing from mobile devices than desktops — by as much as three times, according to an IBM study, in part because a phone is where people are most likely to first see a message. "We do see a general rise in mobile susceptibility driven by increases in mobile computing overall [and] the continued growth of BYOD work environments," says John "Lex" Robinson, information security and anti-phishing strategist at PhishMe — a firm that uses real-world simulations to train workers on recognizing and responding to phishing attempts.

Robinson notes that the line between work and personal computing is also continuing to blur. More and more workers are viewing multiple inboxes — connected to a combination of work and personal accounts — together on a smartphone, he notes, and almost everyone conducts some sort of personal business online during the workday. Consequently, the notion of receiving what appears to be a personal email alongside work-related messages doesn't seem at all unusual on the surface, even if it may in fact be a ruse.

3. Wi-Fi interference

A mobile device is only as secure as the network through which it's transmitting data. In an era where we're all constantly connecting to public Wi-Fi networks, that means our info often isn't as secure as we might assume.

Just how significant of a concern is this? According to new research being released by enterprise security firm Wandera this week, corporate mobile devices use Wi-Fi almost three times as much as they use cellular data. Nearly a quarter of devices have connected to open and potentially insecure Wi-Fi networks, and 4 percent of devices have encountered a man-in-the-middle attack — in which someone maliciously intercepts communication between two parties — within the most recent month.

"These days, it's not difficult to encrypt traffic," says Kevin Du, a computer science professor at Syracuse University who specializes in smartphone security. "If you don't have a VPN, you're leaving a lot of doors on your perimeters open."

Selecting the right enterprise-class VPN, however, isn't so easy. As with most security-related considerations, a tradeoff is almost always required. "The delivery of VPNs needs to be smarter with mobile devices, as minimizing the consumption of resources — mainly battery —  is paramount," Gartner's Zumerle points out. An effective VPN should know to activate only when absolutely necessary, he says, not when a user is accessing a news site, for instance, or when a user is working within an app that's known to be trustworthy and secure.

4. Out-of-date devices

Smartphones, tablets and smaller connected devices — commonly known as the internet of things (IoT) — pose a new risk to enterprise security in that unlike traditional work devices, they generally don't come with guarantees of timely and ongoing software updates. This is true particularly on the Android front, where the vast majority of manufacturers are embarrassingly ineffective at keeping their products up to date — both with operating system (OS) updates and the smaller monthly security patches between them — as well as with IoT devices, many of which aren't even designed to get updates in the first place.

"Many of them don't even have a patching mechanism built in, and that's becoming more and more of a threat these days," Du says.

Again, a strong policy goes a long way. There are Android devices that do receive timely and reliable ongoing updates. Until the IoT landscape becomes less of a wild west, it falls upon a company to create its own security net around them.

5. Physical device breaches

Last but not least is something that seems silly but remains a disturbingly realistic threat: A lost or unattended device can be a major security risk, especially if it doesn't have a strong PIN or password and full data encryption.

Consider the following: In a 2016 Ponemon Institute study, 35 percent of professionals indicated their work devices had no mandated measures in place to secure accessible corporate data. Worse yet, nearly half of those surveyed said they had no password, PIN, or biometric security guarding their devices — and about two-thirds said they didn't use encryption. Sixty-eight percent of respondents indicated they sometimes shared passwords across personal and work accounts accessed via their mobile devices.

The take-home message is simple: Leaving the responsibility in users' hands isn't enough. Don't make assumptions; make policies. You'll thank yourself later.

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