As BYOD gains fed acceptance, assume devices been hacked, protect the data

It’s only a matter of time before government workers can securely use their own smart phones and tablet devices within their agencies — after the legal, reimbursement and security issues are solved, several high-ranking agency IT officials told a Washington audience Tuesday.

Technology isn't the hurdle, as long as you work from the assumption that devices can be, or already have been, compromised, and focus on protecting agency data, they said.


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Agencies don’t have to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach because there are several technical and policy-related approaches government can take to accommodate employees who want to use their own mobile devices in the workforce, the officials said.

Officials at the Transportation Department have been working with DOT’s legal team for the past six months on “bring your own device” issues, said Tim Schmidt, the department's deputy CIO.

“If you can get through that, you are just about home free,” Schmidt said. Across departments and agencies — even down to the state and local areas — lawyers are discussing the subject. “So, we think it is only a matter of time before there are greater solutions for BYOD,” he said.

Schmidt spoke during a panel on transforming Federal IT at the Brocade Federal Forum on Aug. 21 in Washington, D.C. The panel, moderated by Shawn McCarthy, research director with IDC Government Insights, also included Kathy Conrad, principal deputy associate administrator with the General Services Administration’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies, and Simon Szykman, CIO at the Commerce Department.

While many agencies will set up programs to conform to specific agency regulations and culture, there are some general options every agency can consider, Schmidt said. The key is there must be the logic behind the plan, and it has to enhance employee satisfaction while at the same time saving money.

For example, Delaware appears to be adopting a model that is worth investigating, he said. The state is looking to set up a joint purchasing agreement for employees to buy their own devices, and Delaware officials might buy some support elements or air time for the workers, Schmidt said.

Instead of eliminating security problems, DOT officials are focused on managing risks.

"We are looking at mobile devices as ‘hacked’ devices. What we do is secure the data," Schmidt said. DOT could let employees use their personal phones but install government apps that allow secure access to DOT’s infrastructure. This doesn’t mean all types of data would be available to workers. Basically, only the data they need to do their jobs would be available, he said.

"I think the initial thinking was to lock down the devices, but that doesn’t lead to the user satisfaction that most people are looking for," said Commerce’s Szykman.

There are a variety of models agencies can deploy to secure personal smart phones and tablets, he noted. For instance, agencies could establish secure sandboxes on a phone not through government-developed applications but with commercial tools. These tools could segregate data from the rest of the phone.

Another option is a virtualized desktop approach in which a tablet is used as a portable monitor and data is not on the device but on a virtual desktop at the data center. Whatever options are chosen will ultimately depend on the requirements of the users, Szykman noted.

"Many issues are not technology issues," Szykman said. Once the technology, legal and policy issues are solved, personal devices will proliferate across agencies, he predicted.

“Technology issues are surmountable,” agreed GSA’s Conrad; the struggle right now is with the legal, reimbursement and security issues. GSA has a BYOD pilot policy project under way. However, use of personal smart phones requires workers to accept the security responsibility required for using a BYOD policy.

For instance, a policy could state that phones must be wiped of data if they are lost. However, not everyone is willing to make those kinds of commitments, Conrad said.

It is clear that no one size fits all circumstances, but finding approaches that are compliant with polices and that meet agencies’ cultural, legal and productivity needs is critical, she said.

Inevitably, though, as a younger workforce joins government, those employees are going to bring their phones into these environments whether they are allowed to or not. “We know a lot of people in government and industry walking around with two phones, only one of which they actually use,” Conrad said.

Reader Comments

Thu, Aug 23, 2012 LMG NY

I understand protecting the data is important, but keep in mind if the device is compromised, all the data protection in the world won't help. The adversary has the same capabilities as the authorized user at that point. Security apps running on the target are not inly ineffective once the platform is compromised, they may end up being a tool for the adversary to hide their attacks and encrypt their data. Think about your PC. Because we have CACs and TLS, is all our data and our PC now safe? We don't think that way on the desktop, and we not treat the mobile any differently. We need policy-driven multi-mode devices, so that we can have a robust, but fully usable platform.

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