Insecurity slows wireless jump

Handheld computers and personal digital assistants have shed their early geek status and are increasingly seen as valuable tools that can help government workers do their jobs better. As wireless capabilities are added to the devices, enabling such tools as "e-mail on the run," their usefulness only increases.

However, wireless handhelds and smart, data-enabled mobile phones pose particular problems for security managers, problems that will expand as high-speed, next-generation wireless services are introduced in the next few years. With the new services, the portable devices will be able to download and store increasing amounts of sensitive data, but this "always-on" connectivity also opens them up to the same cyberthreats that now plague their desktop cousins.

The good news is that the security industry has recognized current and future threats and is working on solutions. But there are still gaping holes, and many government agencies remain unconvinced that the security gaps can be plugged.

For example, the military's U.S. Transportation Command (Transcom), with its global reach and highly mobile workforce, should be a prime candidate for the use of wireless handheld devices. But those tools are not even on the command's radar.

That's because security concerns far outweigh the potential benefits of these devices, according to Martin Mullican, chief of Transcom's C4 Operations and Security Division. Encryption must comply with Federal Information Processing Standard 140, for example, and such technology is hard to come by.

But that's the easy part, he said. A lot more work needs to be done on authentication solutions to ensure that users on the handheld end of wireless communications are actually who they say they are.

And there is always the fear that handheld devices, which are lost or misplaced far more frequently than any other kind of computing device, could be used to gain access to an agency's network.

"We look at these devices very skeptically, and we don't allow them to be used on an enterprise basis yet," Mullican said. "This soup is a long way from being served."

Standards Needed

A major problem is that the government is stressing the need for standards as a central theme for all of its information technology, and although standards organizations have begun work on defining security profiles for handheld wireless devices, they are still a long way from being ready to publish them.

In the meantime, manufacturers are coming up with their own solutions. For example, the popular Research in Motion Ltd. BlackBerry scored a FIPS 140-1 validation for its embedded technology based on the Triple Data Encryption Standard, but it uses a proprietary security system to do so.

If other handheld device manufacturers also develop proprietary technology, it could prove a management nightmare for security administrators.

Desktop computers, whose locations are fixed and known, have been around for a long time, and security managers feel they have a decent handle on threats to their wired networks and how to account for them, said Robert Manchise, chief technology officer at Anteon Corp., which provides IT solutions and advanced engineering services to the federal government.

Agencies have policies to check for network intrusions, keep firewalls properly configured and ensure that messages are encrypted.

"Their approach has been to keep their network security intact with frequent patches," Manchise said. "But that paradigm doesn't work as well for handhelds. You still have several different operating systems that can be compromised, but how do you get [timely] patches to them?"

Wireless security for handheld devices may be getting a bad rap because of the perceived flaws in early attempts to install de facto standards, such as the over-hyped Wireless Application Protocol. WAP is a carrier-independent, transaction-oriented protocol first released in 1999 that was pushed as a standard for all wireless data networks.

One of the biggest problems with WAP was that it used a set of protocols customized for wireless networks called Wireless Transport Level Security (WTLS), according to Mike Vergara, director of product marketing for RSA Security Inc., which provides the encryption algorithms at the core of most modern security solutions. Carriers had to translate communications that used WTLS to ones that used fixed network encryption methods, such as Secure Sockets Layer, for Internet-based transmissions.

However, that translation took time to execute, and while it was happening, transmissions were not secure. This "WAP gap" stalled the use of the protocol for secure communications, and although WAP is still widely used, it's nowhere near as prevalent as people had expected it to be.

The truth is, Vergara said, successful wireless services such as iMode in Japan show that as Internet-style security standards are adopted for wireless transmissions, "security for wireless can be at least the equal of that in the wired world."

Many security vendors have already developed solutions, in particular for virtual private networks (VPNs) and for mobile systems such as laptops, and are beginning to turn their attention to the handheld wireless universe.

Check Point Software Technologies Ltd., for example, has produced a version of its VPN-1 secure client for use with the Microsoft Corp. Windows-powered Pocket PC and is planning versions for other handheld devices, eventually including next-generation smart phones.

Certicom Corp. has developed an encryption solution called movianCrypt for the Palm Inc. OS and Pocket PC that works with its movianVPN client or third-party applications. V-One Corp. offers a mobile solution as part of its SmartGate VPN software, and Microsoft includes its own VPN software in the Pocket PC 2002 operating system.

This kind of security is becoming the focus for what will likely be the major enterprise uses of handheld devices in government.

The Defense Department "is using VPN technology, for example, and it has made it clear that it certainly would like PDAs to be interoperable with that," said Tony Rosati, Certicom's vice president of products and marketing.

Educating Users

However, developing handheld-specific security solutions may be putting the cart before the horse, because many users don't understand the need for good security practices. Gartner Inc., for example, has calculated that some 75 percent of all PDAs are carried around with even their minimal security features disabled.

And agency managers, who are more aware of the need for security, want a solid understanding of the overall requirements before they will entertain the use of handheld wireless devices. Transcom's Mullican, for one, believes this is an area where technology developments have outpaced policies and practices.

Help may be on the way. The National Institute of Standards and Technology published draft guidelines in July for deploying wireless technologies in agencies, one section of which focuses on handheld devices. The intention is for agencies to use the guidelines to help them incorporate wireless devices into their enterprise plans.

"People have a very inchoate sense of what security is needed with these devices," said Tom Karygiannis, a principal researcher at NIST and one of the authors of the draft guidelines.

"They are operated in a very insecure way currently, and even that security brought to the table by the device vendors is not used adequately," he said. "And these are not very complicated things."

Comments on the draft are due by Sept. 1. If no extensive revisions result from that input, Karygiannis said, the final version of the guidelines could be published by mid-October.

Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore. He can be reached at [email protected]

About the Author

Brian Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.


  • IT Modernization
    shutterstock image By enzozo; photo ID: 319763930

    OMB provides key guidance for TMF proposals amid surge in submissions

    Deputy Federal CIO Maria Roat details what makes for a winning Technology Modernization Fund proposal as agencies continue to submit major IT projects for potential funding.

  • gears and money (zaozaa19/

    Worries from a Democrat about the Biden administration and federal procurement

    Steve Kelman is concerned that the push for more spending with small disadvantaged businesses will detract from the goal of getting the best deal for agencies and taxpayers.

Stay Connected