Is Password Protection Really Enough?

July 21, 2014
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3 min read

The recently-released 2014 BYOD and Mobile Security Spotlight Report from the LinkedIn Information Security group, sponsored by IBM, sheds light on the current state of the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) trend among organizations. As might be expected, security is considered an issue by many organizations, but the majority of them are relying on password protection alone to protect their data. Is that really enough?

Personal devices are widely used at 45 percent of organizations (albeit not always with the support of the organization) and in limited use at a further 26 percent, the report found. Just 11 percent state that they have no plans for the use of personal devices within the next year.

Why? It’s all about keeping employees satisfied and productive, allowing them to work flexibly from wherever they are in a way that suits them. Cost considerations are given a much lower priority. Improved productivity is seen by survey participants as the most important measure for gauging the success of any BYOD initiative, cited by 61 percent of respondents.

There is a disconnect regarding the security impact of allowing personal mobile devices into the organization. Among the main concerns are the potential for loss of company or personal data related to customers and employees, cited by 67 percent, and unauthorized access to data and company systems, a worry for 57 percent. Yet just 16 percent claim to have been the victim of any form of corporate data loss or theft caused by the use of personal devices. In fact, more than half of organizations surveyed stated that improved security is the second most important measure used for gauging the success of their BYOD programs, even though reduced security risk is cited as a driver for just 19 percent.

Organizations Underestimating Risks

But does this really reflect reality? According to a recent poll by Deloitte, one in three organizations believe they have unauthorized devices on their network, and 32 percent have no handle on how many. Other research indicates that 55 percent of respondents have seen attacks against their personally-owned PCs and laptops, although the figure is slightly lower for other types of devices such as smartphones. Even given these figures, 51 percent said that they would contravene corporate policies regarding the use of personal devices, and 14 percent would not admit to their employer that they had suffered a breach or incident.

Given that the rates of usage of personal devices are apparently higher than most organizations would realize, what are they doing about security? Are they taking it seriously enough? According to the 2014 BYOD and Mobile Security report, apparently not.

Password Protection Alone Is Insufficient

When asked about their most commonly used risk control measures, 67 percent of respondents cited password protection. Numerous studies have discussed the issues associated with weak passwords and poor password protection practices, concluding that many users are particularly lax when it comes to password protection. Coupled with the fact that the majority of mobile devices are protected with just a four-digit passcode, which is relatively easy to guess or break, it is clear that passwords alone are far from sufficient.

Other risk control measures used by respondents include remote wiping of data, at 52 percent, and mandatory use of encryption, at 43 percent. However, because just 25 percent perform any kind of audit of mobile devices, and given that employees are likely to contravene the demands of corporate policies, they probably do not know if employees are actually using mandatory controls such as encryption and virtual private networks (VPNs).

What is encouraging, however, is that more organizations appear to be deploying centralized controls to help them manage the personal devices being used on their network. The most popular tool — one that is being recommended as the top tool for use in such environments, used by 43 percent of organizations — is mobile device management (MDM) technology. MDM is an essential tool for helping organizations enforce policy and should be considered by any organization that has personal devices being used for work purposes on its network.

Other important controls include endpoint security tools (39 percent), which ensure the health and integrity of devices connecting to the network, and network access controls (38 percent), which allow the organization to scan the network to see all devices connected to it. However, as many as 22 percent of respondents are using no controls at all.

Mobile security threats are real, even if they are not currently seen as the greatest threats affecting organizations. However, that is likely to change as mobile device usage is growing rapidly in business settings, especially those that are personally owned by users that are more difficult to control without centralized tools in place. Organizations should look to nip those threats in the bud and implement robust controls that users cannot disable or work around. A strategy based on password protection alone is far from sufficient.

Fran Howarth
Senior Analyst, Bloor Research

Fran Howarth is an industry analyst and writer specialising in security. She has worked within the security technology sector for more than 25 years in an ad...
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