Mobiles and tablets: A new threat to the business world?
- 1 July 2011
- From the section Business
With only hours left before his flight home to the US from Germany, businessman John Mueller suddenly realised something was wrong - very wrong.
He couldn't find his phone.
And for a global sales manager of a big biotechnology company, Life-Tech, losing his Blackberry was more than just getting disconnected from a few friends.
"I use the same phone for both business and for personal calls," says Mr Mueller, remembering that day.
"It stores my most valuable contact information, ranging from my wife and children to my boss and top customers, to keep up-to-date and in touch.
"In the world of airline travel today, we find ourselves running to and from airport gates often with little time to pull out our laptops, so the phone is becoming increasingly important."
"The fear of having no phone while travelling home, no communication tool for work, and having to report the phone to my manager and IT department as missing was too great to just accept that it was lost."
With little time left, he remembered he had downloaded an application called Lookout mobile security that promised to retrieve the phone if it went missing.
Developed by a California-based mobile security company, the software also guaranteed protection from viruses and hackers, and remote wiping of all data in case of theft or loss.
"I was not hopeful it would work but was willing to try anything, so I logged on with my laptop and pressed the 'find phone' button.
"It started with a map of the US, and within a minute I had an icon of my phone on a map of some German street names, in an area around my hotel."
Mr Mueller jumped into a cab, reached the place shown on the map and even convinced the German-speaking driver to help him explain why he was suddenly knocking on people's doors.
The second person to open their door was a manager of a taxi company - and everything cabbies found, they brought to him.
He gave Mr Mueller his phone back.
Mr Mueller and his company were lucky - but a huge number of companies around the globe are just starting to learn how to deal with the multitude of mobile devices permeating today's corporate walls.
Lookout is just one of a growing number of third-party services that try to solve the security risks posed by mobiles.
As well as apps that keep an eye on where the phone is, there are programs that try to spot malicious applications and ones that encrypt conversations to thwart eavesdropping.
If before it used to be only Blackberries given to a select few, now anyone may show up with a handset running iOS, Android, or any other advanced operating system.
And it is up to the IT department to deal with them - and to figure out a solution in case they are lost, stolen or hacked.
Consumer handsets, ranging from all types of smartphones to tablets and e-readers, have become essential work tools, successfully bridging our personal and business lives.
According to Forrester Research more than 33% of enterprises now support multiple mobile operating systems.
Such consumerisation of IT can be highly beneficial to businesses, which may find it cheaper to let employees use their own devices for work purposes instead of having to supply them with corporate laptops.
It can also increase productivity, with overzealous workers finishing reports on their iPhones while on a train home, or frantically putting a PowerPoint presentation together on a tablet while waiting to board a flight to the next conference.
But there are risks.
In these early days of our digital and increasingly mobile world, smart hand-held devices may inadvertently open corporate gates and invite criminals in.
Many executives still struggle to properly control or even acknowledge the threats this myriad of new devices poses.
A recent conference on mobile security in London held by Sophos, a UK-based global security software developer, was an example of this.
The room was full of corporate bosses and IT people, eager to learn more about securing their workers' sleek electronic companions.
"Many don't apply the same scrutiny to their mobile devices as to their PC," said Sophos security expert James Lyne.
"I suspect mainly because they've learned through experience that they can get in trouble on the PC, while the mobile device seems eminently safe."
But in reality, it is far from safe - and cyber-criminals are starting to pay more and more attention to handsets.
Just like your desktop PC, smartphone operating systems are prone to hacks - and neither Apple's iOS nor Google's Android can guarantee you absolute protection.
According to information technology research company Gartner, if one were to rank a Blackberry, an iPhone and an Android in terms of enterprise security worthiness, Blackberry would be in the lead, followed by iOS, and Android lagging behind.
Downloading a malicious application is always a risk - and while Apple's Appstore has all its software carefully reviewed, in the case of Android, anybody can submit an application.
Security software company Symantec wrote in its recent report that criminals can target your handset both through the web - by getting you to click on a malicious link or download an app containing a virus, for instance, - or through a network the mobile is using.
They can even set up a malicious wi-fi hotspot, lure you in and get access to your data.
Also, whenever you synchronise your phone with your home desktop computer or cloud services like forwarding your corporate e-mail to your Gmail account, you expose sensitive work information to systems your company's IT department has no control over.
Finally, criminals can just steal your smartphone - and since mobiles and tablets are so frequently on the move and are much smaller and lighter than laptops, they are also much easier to steal and conceal.
Hope dies last
While there are companies that take steps towards securing mobile devices entering and exiting their premises, some businesses simply hope for the best.
An executive from a Moscow-based firm who did not want to be named, told BBC News that at his company, it all comes down to a personal sense of responsibility.
"Only senior officials are allowed to access corporate data with their hand-held devices, and we just hope that they will be vigilant enough not to forget them anywhere and not to download any suspicious applications," he said.
But sometimes, hope is just not enough.
At a Belarusian company Pixel Electronics, which helps the development of small businesses, all 50 employees have a smartphone - from truck drivers to management.
"Data security is a big issue for us - and still, our company's lawyer loses her iPhone every month - I don't know how she does it, but she does it," said boss Andrei Simonovich.
"So every time, our system administrator just blocks all access from her phone to any corporate applications and documents."
Mr Simonovich said last summer, his company had decided to embrace the mobile technology, as it was cheaper than giving out corporate laptops.
But everyone who brings in his or her personal device has to get it registered with the company's IT department first, get a pass code and have anti-virus software installed.
This way, Mr Simonovich said, they try to keep "the bad guys" at bay - and their data safe and secure, even if some workers recklessly and constantly misplace their sleek shiny gadgets.