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Mobile device security risks: Keeping data safe

Corporate cybersecurity in a mobile world

​Security of data for mobile devices is a continual concern for corporations and individuals. What potential mobile device security risks could you be facing?

Risks and opportunities

​Who are you? The computer wants to know. Convincing the machine you are who you claim to be is at the heart of network security. For the vast majority of us—those committed to safeguarding bank accounts, personal data, corporate patents, and inside information—security of data hinges on establishing our identity in a way that no one, man or machine, can replicate.

You might think that mobile device security risks are rising. After all, global workers are venturing far outside old corporate firewalls. From the ballpark to the beach, they’re using their own smartphones and tablets to copy and forward proprietary documents and spreadsheets. And much of this data is stored on cloud computers belonging to other companies. Add it all up, and it may appear as though corporations have utterly lost control of their secrets.

Security companies stress these risks and the need for security in their marketing. “But we’re not simply at the mercy of the attackers,” says Michael Wyatt, managing director, Deloitte & Touche LLP, and Identity Management Solution leader in Deloitte Risk and Financial Advisory's Cyber Risk services. In the end, Wyatt says, smartphones in the hands of mobile workers may prove to be more secure than the old cubicle PC equipped and vetted by the tech department. “The developments that people associate with increased mobile device security risks also create opportunities for new solutions.”

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Leveraging risk to power performance

Organizations that view the business landscape through this lens can continue to reap the benefits generated by technology and digital by consciously taking on and managing risk when it creates value for their businesses. It’s this perspective—that risk can be used to power performance and isn’t only something to be feared or avoided—that creates enhanced opportunity.

One such area of potential is identification. The old status quo features a corporation with firewalls ringing it like an electronic moat. Even within such a fortress, users must establish their identities for the machines. The systems, after all, can’t verify users’ identities the way a colleague might, by looking at them or hearing them speak. Instead, they demand strings of numbers and letters—passwords—to sign into virtual private networks and intranets.

This creates vulnerability, most of it stemming from the inconvenience these defenses pose. People struggle to remember passwords, so they stick them on Post-it notes to their monitors. They recycle old passwords or use ones that any hacker could guess. Currently, the two most common passwords, according to security firm Splashdata, are “123456” and “password.” “The weakest link in our security models, and a significant source of breaches, has always been the user,” says Jeff Margolies, principal, Deloitte & Touche LLP.

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Moving beyond passwords

While the PC in the cubicle recognizes users only by strings of symbols, security features in mobile devices can zero in on a person’s identity in new ways. But the world is slowly moving beyond passwords. As recently as a decade ago, says Margolies, surveys showed that many users were wary of biometric filters, viewing them as intrusive and creepy. But their combination of convenience and security is hard to beat.

Already, many smartphones and tablets demand a fingerprint—which is far more precise than a password. A slew of other biometric filters, including face scans, voice recognition, and heartbeat signature, can add certainty to the security of data.

And this is only the beginning. Mobile networks, increasingly, are able to identify people by the patterns of their lives—their movements, social networks, Internet searches, the apps they use, even the music they listen to. This data informs machine-learning systems that not only recommend itineraries or songs but can also vouch for a user’s identity. The upshot? Even when a device is lost or stolen, network security can detect unusual patterns and shut off access.

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Reliance on others

With mobile workers operating their own devices, companies cede a certain amount of control and must rely more on the phone and Internet providers. This can be unsettling. But corporate crown jewels might end up being safer in some other company’s cloud than in the old refrigerated data center in the headquarters’ basement.

Even a decade ago, many companies resisted entrusting their most valuable data to outside providers. They understood the efficiencies of outsourcing the expensive, exacting, and labor-intensive work of running data centers. But if a company’s secrets and intellectual property are in the form of digital data, can they afford to trust anyone else to handle it?

In a word, yes. A well-chosen cloud provider maintains security at a high level because its business is on the line if it doesn’t. Due diligence is necessary, of course, to manage mobile device security risks properly. But even government intelligence agencies, holding some of the most sensitive data imaginable, have been turning to third-party cloud storage providers.

The result is a drastic shift for technology departments in companies around the world. They used to provide, maintain, and protect technology, end to end, within their digital fortresses. Now they’re relinquishing much of this control. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

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The critical link: Users

But the vulnerable link in the security of data remains, as it always has been, the users. They control or generate the lion’s share of the data. A primary challenge for corporate cyber security is to make sure the users understand the data’s transcendent value and to make smart decisions when producing, sharing, or storing the intimate details of the enterprise.

And here’s the bonus: When corporations manage data intelligently, they not only avoid the nightmare scenarios we hear so much about, they also enhance their reputations and power performance. Consider all those hours squandered hunting down old passwords or creating new ones. In modern systems, employees can use that time instead to solve business problems and serve customers.

Prefer to read the article in PDF format? Download Keeping data safe in a mobile world.

Learn more about cyber risk and our Cyber Risk Services.

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