Is mobile security a losing game?

The surge of network-connected mobile devices has introduced a new kind of threat to an already crowded cyber landscape, and with it a new kind of concern: mobile security. With an increasing number of workers from both the federal and private sectors using their Blackberries, iPhones, Androids and iPads to conduct business, it’s a critical threat to address – and one that will require a step away from traditional cyber defense, according to industry insiders.

Mobile security requires a leap from what has, until now, been an intuitive approach to defense; that is, an objective to keep out the enemy. Now, it’s a given that adversaries are going to find their way in. The new objective? Make it too hot in the kitchen, said a panel of industry experts who spoke April 4 at FOSE in Washington.

“We’re not going to win this fight, but we can marginalize the capacity of our adversaries to do damage. It’s advanced persistent response. In the end, if you work for a government entity or [major] corporation, you’re being targeted by the world’s elites in hacking right now,” said Tom Kellerman, vice president for cybersecurity at Trend Micro. “The best way to deal with them is to accept the fact that they’ll break into your house. But how do confine them to the basement with the Rottweilers?”

What is already an established commercial threat overseas faces a new target in the U.S. government, particularly in the Defense Department, and the damage that could be unleashed on national critical infrastructure.

“Mobile attacks have been going on for a while in Asia, because the banks moved to mobile banking a while ago, before we did it in the US. What we’re realizing now is we have real converged attacks: cyber threats have now manifested themselves in physical space,” said Tom Suder, president and founder of MobileGov. “We have to get to the next stage, which is acknowledging that if they’re going to compromise my device, how do I increase the level of discomfort to a point where they no longer want to maintain the presence on the device because they don’t want to waste the resources or bandwidth to do so?”

The  panelists offered several defensive measures as examples:

  • A cloud security strategy that includes file integrity monitoring, consistent log-in and encryption – with two-factor, not dual-factor, authentication;
  • Agile capabilities that accommodate transition between traditional IT environments and the hybrid cloud where many government agencies are headed;
  • Security policies and strategies that can be ‘retrofitted’ for new environments;
  • "Dumbing the phone down” when conducting secure transactions by turning off global positioning system-based apps that could report its location.

It’s also a crucial time for DOD to lead the way in security, the panelists said.

“I hope the private sector actually listens to the lessons and best practices that have been learned in [government security] exercises and apply them, because this is an area the government can and should lead,” Kellerman said.

Efforts in mobile security are already well under way at organizations like the Defense Information Systems Agency and National Security Agency, according to Ken Fritzsche, product director at Army Knowledge Online.

“From the DOD perspective, DISA and NSA are the primary actors in making sure solutions that are being delivered and used inside DOD are secure. DISA has a method and process to create and publish security guidelines, which are used to accredit systems on the network. DISA is the agency responsible for making sure that processes are developed and guidelines published that DOD agencies can follow to do things securely on the network,” Fritzsche said.

At NSA, some more actives approaches are being employed.

“NSA has many different pieces involved with all things security – there are defenders, there are guys who are aggressive and look at the vulnerabilities that exist. They have an intrinsic responsibility for being able to bring to light at DOD where some of the vulnerabilities are,” Fritzsche said. “When a lot of new technologies and products come out, some of the NSA folks are the first to look at them and identify where the vulnerabilities are. Sometimes it’s shared publicly; sometimes it’s shared internally so DOD can figure out how to deal with the vulnerabilities before they’re exploited.”

But partnership beyond the Pentagon and other government agencies is also crucial, said Alan Dabbiere, chairman at AirWatch.

“There’s going to be a billion to a billion-and-a-half mobile devices in the next two to three years; more than 50 percent will touch an enterprise. And whether it touches the enterprise or not, it’s going to be used to start your car, it’s going to be your wallet and hotel key – it’s going to be lots of things to you,” he said. Security “will always be a cat-and-a-mouse game, as it was on Windows and desktops and laptops. I think if we really want to stop [adversaries] from getting into the cellular network, we’re going to. But it will take more partnership from Apple and Android and the manufacturers.”

About the Author

Amber Corrin is a former staff writer for FCW and Defense Systems.


  • Workforce
    online collaboration (elenabsl/

    Federal employee job satisfaction climbed during pandemic

    The survey documents the rapid change to teleworking postures in government under the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Workforce
    By Mark Van Scyoc Royalty-free stock photo ID: 285175268

    OPM nominee plans focus on telework, IT, retirement

    Kiran Ahuja, a veteran of the Office of Personnel Management, told lawmakers that she thinks that the lack of consistent leadership in the top position at OPM has taken a toll on the ability of the agency to complete longer term IT modernization projects.

Stay Connected