7 steps to protect your mobile workers from cybercriminals

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Cybercrime predates the world wide web. In 1986, the Morris worm virus caused almost $100 million in damages while an attack on systems at Berkeley the same year was traced to a foreign government attempt to uncover US military secrets.  

In the thirty years since, the damage from cybercrime has increased by a factor of 10,000. By 2019, Juniper Research estimates that cybercrime will cost around $2 trillion.  

Mobile devices are increasingly the target of cyber criminals. NetEnrich found that four in 10 companies surveyed had suffered a loss of key corporate data from a mobile device. A Harvard Business Review research of chief information officers, technology executives, and IT employees found 45% of respondents saw mobile devices as the weak spot in their company’s defenses.

And they are right to be concerned. In April 2016, one out of every 120 smartphones had some type of malware infection. While this may seem a low percentage, it still equates to 50 million or so infected phones.

“Android smartphones were the most targeted mobile platform, accounting for 74 percent of all malware infections compared to Window/PC systems (22 percent), and other platforms, including iOS devices (4 percent),” Nokia said in its Threat Intelligence Report.

The impact of this is felt not just by the mobile users. Mobile network operators also suffer with network congestion caused by spambots and other viruses, which then reduces the service quality for everyone. Nokia found that smartphones accounted for 78 percent of all mobile network infections and such infections increased 96% year-on-year.

Always update your OS

The top five attack vectors include device vulnerabilities, malware and insecure apps, user error and data leakage, use of unauthorized cloud services and using unprotected public networks to access confidential or privileged data and services.

Not every attack is intended to damage end users, some concerted attacks aim to take down networks and cause other problems. Sustained virus and DDoS attacks can cause network congestion and signaling storms.  Attacks include ransomware, spyphone applications, SMS Trojans, personal information theft and aggressive adware.

Malware is becoming increasingly more sophisticated, as new variations attempt to root the phone in order to provide complete control and establish a permanent presence on the device. The cat and mouse game between cybercriminals and mobile device manufacturers means the best thing any user can do is upgrade their devices as and when software is introduced.

Be careful of the apps you download

One way attackers like to hit is by putting criminal code inside innocent seeming mobile apps. Most security researchers recommend smartphone users only download software from reputable distributors – bargain software made available through little-known third party vendors isn’t necessarily safe. In one case, users of jailbroken iOS devices were targeted with malware-laden software made available for download from reputable seeming sites.

Understand phishing techniques

Phishing attacks are particularly insidious. There have been incidents in which organized hackers have targeted the personal accounts of individuals working within larger enterprises in order to slowly gather the details of the target enterprise security protection.  User error remains a key weakness in even the strongest security scenario. This means it is vital to ensure security and device usage policies are in place and enforced and that users are trained and made fully aware of good security practice and protections. Enterprises should also insist employees only download apps from reputable sources, and integrate app reputation management systems that enable early detection of insecure apps or unusual network traffic.

Managed mobile devices for regulated industries

BYOD has allowed many people to be more productive at work. But for some regulated industries, BYOD presents a challenge. IT should insist on only purchasing and/or supporting secure devices running secure platforms with a clear commitment to providing security software in timely fashion. Enterprises should also adopt enterprise mobility management tools to enable them to remain in control of the data held on employee devices.  Security teams must then enforce security policies and quarantine devices that fail to comply with those policies, such as devices running older versions of an OS that cannot be updated.

Manage data, enable the cloud

Rather than blacklisting cloud services, it makes sense to ensure that only managed applications from managed devices can access key data. This model means employees can use any cloud service they like but can only handle corporate data in properly protected fashion. Quarantine devices that cannot be updated, and enforce and implement a minimum OS version for devices used on corporate networks.

Don't allow access to the inside of the phone

The threats aren’t confined to the devices, but also the ecosystem around them. “Often, IT shops or security managers will address or secure the apps on a phone and protect the operating system from potential threats,” said Joshua Franklin, NIST cybersecurity engineer. “But there is a much wider range of threats that need to be addressed. For example, enterprise security teams often don’t focus on the cellular radios in smartphones, which, if not secured, can allow someone to eavesdrop on your CEO’s calls,” in the ‘Assessing Threats to Mobile Devices and Infrastructure’ report.

360 degree security

Situational awareness and achievement of a 360-degree overview of the security situation seems critical to safeguarding the mobile ecosystem. This is a full-featured security approach that extends from nurturing and training good security awareness among employees all the way to monitoring and protecting the networks, servers, shared data and devices that populate enterprise IT.

Jon Evans

Jon Evans is highly experienced technology journalist and editor. He has been writing for a living since 1994. These days you might read his daily regular Computerworld AppleHolic and opinion columns. Jon is also technology editor for men’s interest magazine, Calibre Quarterly, and news editor for MacFormat magazine, which is the biggest UK Mac title. He's really interested in the impact of technology on the creative spark at the heart of the human experience. In 2010 he won an American Society of Business Publication Editors (Azbee) Award for his work at Computerworld.