Apple enhances enterprise mobile device security with biometrics

Apple's acquisition of AuthenTec takes away Samsung's Android security tool and gives Apple a way to offer secure iPads and iPhones to enterprises.

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Many IT shops consider BlackBerry the only enterprise-ready mobile device, but Apple's acquisition of AuthenTec gives the company a way to deliver iPhones and iPads with the level of mobile device security that businesses require.

With this acquisition, made quietly last week, Apple Inc. may also be able to undermine competitor Samsung, which uses AuthenTec Inc.'s biometric technology to secure Android devices.

Apple's consumer devices offer some security provisions, including device encryption, application sandboxing, application code signing, which prevents unsigned code from being run, and the configurator utility for mobile device management (MDM). But the technology Apple will gain from the Florida-based company gives Apple a way to deliver more of the security features IT pros have hoped for.

"This new IP would give Apple the opportunity to authenticate and manage data on iOS devices," said Tim Crawford, an independent enterprise IT consultant based in Mountain View, Calif.

Beyond device and information security from biometrics, AuthenTec's VPN client could give Apple the opportunity to extend its security reach to the network, similar to Research in Motion's (RIM) enterprise server, he added.

Move over RIM, here comes Apple

For now, BlackBerry remains the corporate sanctioned device of choice because rival platforms from Microsoft, Google and Apple don't offer the combination of integrated hardware, software and the network security that RIM's Blackberry provides, Crawford said.

However, that may not be the case for very long.

Despite its consumer-focus, Apple devices have already made their way into enterprises, thanks to the bring your own device (BYOD) trend. The number of iPhones in the enterprise has doubled last year and the number of iPads had tripled during the same time frame, Apple said during its most recent earnings conference call.

Apple refused to give hard adoption numbers, but a recent report (.pdf) suggests 70% of mobile devices activated in an enterprise during 2012 were either iPhones or iPads.

Further, Apple said the enterprise market is an important one for them going forward.

IT shops may welcome Apple's enterprise play as they seek a secure alternative to RIM for corporate-controlled devices, said Bob Egan, founder of the Sepharim Group, an enterprise mobility consulting firm based in Nantucket, Mass.

"Is Android going to grow to be an enterprise solution? A lot of companies are seriously discriminating against Android because malware attacks and Trojans keep showing up in legitimate apps," he said. Plus, companies are realizing they don't save money with BYOD, he added, which undercuts Android's typical use in organizations.

Windows mobile devices could also become a viable enterprise alternative to Blackberry if Microsoft puts several technology pieces together, but Apple has a huge advantage with users already, and the company seems to be taking enterprise security needs seriously, he said.

Biometrics -- the future of enterprise mobile security

This acquisition indicates security and identity will be key technologies for Apple going forward, said Benjamin Robbins, principal at Palador Inc., an enterprise mobility consulting firm based in Seattle, Wash.

"With biometrics you can use the fingerprint to tie your identity back to information stored in iCloud or something similar. Plus, fingerprints are more difficult to hack than a four number passcode," Robbins said.

"This puts them in a sweet spot. Imagine using a fingerprint on a device to bring up a user's identity, apps and data?" he added.

Fingerprint scanning technology has existed in corporate laptops for several years now, but it's only been in the latest models of powerful mobile devices where the possibility of having biometric security is possible, Egan said.

As laptops become stationary devices, and tablets and smartphones become enterprise mobile computers -- which can easily be lost or stolen -- the biometric approach to security for mobile devices is hugely "beneficial to IT" and "easy for users."

Apple pulls rug from under Samsung

AuthenTec not only makes iOS more secure, but could set back Apple's closest mobile competitors, said Ken Dulaney, a mobile analyst at Stamford, Conn. based research firm Gartner Inc.

One of AuthenTec's existing customers is Samsung Group, the largest maker of Android phones, accounting for half of the smartphones sold around the globe. In June, Samsung launched a program called SAFE that uses AuthenTec's various security products to help enterprise IT shops feel more comfortable about adopting the Android mobile platform.

It remains unclear, however, whether or not this acquisition will affect existing AuthenTec deals, Dulaney said, but there's a good chance it might.

Apple and Samsung are currently involved in a patent litigation case against one another, and even though "Apple doesn't do anything out of spite" in terms of its selective acquisitions, "it's probably a bonus they could impact Samsung's enterprise efforts as well," Robbins said.

Apple has not indicated its plans for AuthenTec, but it's not officially a done deal due to a pending investigation by a law firm over whether AuthenTec's board of directors failed to adequately shop the company and obtain the best possible value for shareholders.

Apple has agreed to purchase AuthenTec for approximately $356 million -- the equivalent of three days of profit for Apple. That figure represents a 58% premium on the stock price, which leads industry watchers to believe the investigation will be little more than a roadblock.

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