Dumb and dumber: Shadow BYOD in government agencies

Employees who use personal devices outside agency parameters expose agency networks to hosts of mobile malware.

A rising concern for government organizations is the so-called shadow IT ecosystem --the unauthorized applications that employees download and use at work without formal agency permission.

That poses serious security headaches for network administrators, who don’t know which applications are out there and who has them, and therefore find it impossible to write effective security policies. It's similarly difficult to optimize  network parameters when traffic is produced by unknown sources.

The bring-your-own-device movement has generated its own security headaches over the past few years, and agencies have struggled to come up with ways to let employees use their own mobile devices for government work. A few have done that, but most have simply barred employees from using their personal phones and tablets to handle government data.

Case closed? If only.

Were there really that many IT executives who thought that, simply by saying so, people used to peering at their screens every few minutes outside work would meekly give that up at the office and switch to agency-sanctioned devices? Hillary Clinton is not the only one who doesn’t want to swap phones to get emails or other communications.

Mobile security company Lookout wanted to see what the reality of this “shadow BYOD” is, and it’s not pretty. An analysis of records for Lookout-enabled devices found 14,622 associated with government networks. More than one in 10 of those devices registered a "serious mobile threat encounter" over the course of a year.

In a survey of over 1,000 government employees at 20 agencies in June, Lookout discovered that fully half of them have used their personal devices to get email, and nearly as many have used them to download work documents.

And the threat from mobile devices not only is real -- it seems to be higher than that found outside government. Some 18 percent of federal employees claim to have encountered malware on their mobile devices, the Lookout survey found, including both their personal and government-issued devices. That’s more than double the average percentage reported overall for iPhone and Android devices.

This all comes on the heels of a number of recent announcements of dangerous bugs found in the Android operating system. One was the so-called Stagefright vulnerability, which could affect up to 95 percent of all Android devices and has been likened by some to the OpenSSL Heartbleed bug of 2014.

Now another bug has been found in an Android system-level app. Called Google Admin, it allows Android to accept URLs from other apps, which could be manipulated to give malware access to private data on the device.

This bad news for Android continues to pile on, with vulnerabilities also found in various browsers used with Android. But don’t make the mistake in thinking Apple’s iOS is immune to cyber threats.

The trick, of course, is in making sure users install all the patches that come out for Android and iOS to fix these vulnerabilities, and do so in a timely manner. Perfect patching doesn’t happen, so at any one time there will be vulnerable devices accessing government systems and data.

Then there’s just the dumb stuff that no one can govern. The Lookout survey found that some 58 percent of respondents were aware of the potential consequences of using their personal devices at work, but 85 percent admitted to using them for risky activities anyway.

It’s back to school time for most of America. Maybe it’s also time for the federal government to get back to basics with cybersecurity and put together formal policies to handle BYOD. The practice is only going to get more prevalent over time – and so will the potential risks.

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