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Do shutdown rules threaten your phone's data?

Some federal workers sent home because of the government shutdown have been told to turn off their government-issued Androids, BlackBerrys and iPhones. 

A presidential memorandum on implementing “orderly shutdown procedures” warns against furloughed employees doing work outside the office, including by using mobile devices or remote connections. The memo gives agencies some leeway, saying some could have employees turn in their agency-issued devices, but “others may determine that circumstances warrant a different approach.” Some agencies, such as the State Department have told furloughed employees to turn off their agency devices.

But Good Technology, which manages mobile device security for many federal agencies, warns that powering down devices could result in lost data. "People may not realize that, as part of their mobile device management plan, there are security practices that will wipe out a phone if it does not connect to its network for a certain amount of time," said Jeffrey Ait, Good Technology's public-sector director. "Normally after a reasonable amount of time, say after seven days, if a phone has not connected back with mom, we assume that it's been lost or stolen."

As a security precaution, phones managed by Good Technology, and many other mobile device management providers, can be set to wipe themselves if they are left powered off for days at a time. This is done to protect government data that might be sitting on the device in the event that it’s lost or stolen. But a shutdown scenario probably wasn’t considered.

The wipe command and timer is housed on the phone, but can be modified by administrators back at the office, assuming they are considered essential employees and can work to make the changes during the shutdown. However, a powered-down phone still won't get that update and would still wipe itself out after the connection time has expired.

"Most of the data that will be lost is probably just a copy of what is on the Exchange server, but not always," Ait said. "It's something that users may not have thought about, which could become a problem if the shutdown lasts for a while."

Ait said the easiest way to avoid getting a phone wiped out would simply be to turn it on from time to time during the shutdown so that it can connect back to the host network and do its check-in. Also, if administrators have suspended the check-in requirement or lengthened it, the phone would then be updated with the new profile. Whether this breaks the no-work rule is an open question, but it’s something that mobile users and their administrators probably need to consider.

Posted by John Breeden II on Oct 02, 2013 at 2:13 PM


Reader Comments

Fri, Oct 4, 2013 muhammad lal Pakistan

What the government seems unable to understand is that wholesale contemptuous surveillance will drive the introduction of less traceable technologies. This has already happened with the internet, phones and internet are merging and the same will happen with phones. The end result of ignoring the privacy of citizens will be the inability to track criminals and terrorists which is the last thing we want. All they will be able to trace is completely innocuous calls, everything of potential interest will be hidden. We are not there, but this is what will happen.... Great

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