Tablet security: Best practices for the tablet computer onslaught

Tablets are taking the enterprise by storm, and tablet security is a major concern. Find out which mobile device security best practices you're already using can apply to tablets, and which you will need to revisit to keep tablets secure.

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Adoption of tablet devices by business users has been astonishingly quick, taking some IT departments by surprise and wondering what to do about tablet security and support. To some extent, tablets can be treated like smartphones with the same mobile operating systems. But tablets are not just big flat smartphones -- they tend to be used differently and thus pose some unique challenges of their own. In the companion to this article,...

we explored the influx of tablet devices and related mobile security risks in the IT environment. Here we'll discuss how to mitigate those risks.

Leverage smartphone mobile security practices

Companies that rely on corporate-standard phones to ensure security will have more trouble embracing tablets. Employers may procure tablets for specific use cases, but this alone will not address all tablet demands. Instead, IT must facilitate safe business use of many different employee-owned tablets. Companies that are already securing employee-liable smartphones can start by applying smartphone mobile device security policies and practices to tablet security. The most important of these include:

  1. Device lock: If a tablet is lost or stolen, enabling native device authentication (PIN, password, pattern) can reduce risk of application, data, or connection misuse. All contemporary tablets support this practice, although strength and enforcement vary.
  2. Anti-theft measures: Many tablets support remote lock or data wipe to stop missing tablets from being misused -- including those owned by former employees. While such measures are readily available for tablets, policies must be defined. For example, workers may be asked to consent to remote wipe and back up their own personal data. Employer use of tablet "find me" services can also raise privacy concerns.
  3. Over-the-air encryption: All contemporary tablets can secure Web and email with SSL/TLS, Wi-Fi with WPA2, and corporate data with mobile VPN clients. The primary challenge here for employers is proper configuration and enforcement, as well as protecting credentials and configs to prevent reuse on unauthorized devices.
  4. Stored data protection: Hardware and mobile OS support for stored data encryption varies. However, self-protecting apps are readily available for tablets, such as email apps that store messages, contacts, and calendars inside encrypted containers. Some employers find self-protecting apps preferable, because they insulate business data from personal data, making it easier to wipe the former without the latter.
  5. Mobile application controls: Contemporary mobile operating systems employ code signing. data caging, and feature restrictions to deter malware. Nonetheless, many downloaded apps require access to sensitive data and features, and employers may have little or no control over app installation. Centrally-enforced restrictions and blacklists are still emerging for tablets; consider this more of a stretch goal than best practice today.
  6. Anti-malware: Tablets are not shipped with on-board anti-virus, anti-spam, intrusion detection, or firewall apps. Although such apps are available, adoption has been slow. Instead, many users rely on corporate mail server or mobile operator SMS filters and a naïve hope that AppStore rules stop Trojans. The IT department has plenty of room for improvement here.
  7. Device management: For visibility, policy configuration, app provisioning, and compliance reporting, employers can centrally manage tablets used for business, no matter who owns them. A minimum practice is Exchange ActiveSync policies -- for example, to deny corporate mail access by unencrypted devices. For more extensive and transparent control, use mobile device management (MDM) software from a vendor such as Afaria, AirWatch, BoxTone, MobileIron, Tangoe, or Zenprise. For example, all of these MDMs can enroll and secure iPads, without relying on iTunes or Exchange.

Adapt to tablet security needs

While these common practices are a good start, tablets do present a few new twists that may require policy customization or practice adaptation. These differences can be subtle. Let's consider a few examples.

  • Unlike smartphones, which support cellular voice and SMS texting, many new tablets are available in Wi-Fi-only models. If your smartphone enrollment, remote lock/wipe, or AV update practices depend on SMS, they may not work on tablets running the same mobile OS. Look for measures that can be adapted to work on Wi-Fi-only devices, and realize those Wi-Fi tablets will not be continuously connected to the same degree.
  • Smartphones have relatively little visual real estate, but tablets are appealing platforms for remote display and desktop app virtualization. In fact, new Chrome OS tablets won't even run locally-installed apps. If you use VPN clients to secure business communication on smartphones, this may not end up being your preferred approach on tablets.
  • On the other hand, tablets are rich media devices, driving users to store presentations, PDF files, podcasts, and videos. Policies that block file attachments or file transfer apps on smartphones may not fly on tablets. Similarly, you are more likely to need to safeguard data beyond email, contacts, and calendars on tablets.
  • In order to fully exploit tablet capabilities, mobile operating systems are being refined. For example, early tablets using Android 2.2 cannot run many Marketplace apps well. However, this year's tablets are expected to run Android 3.0 (a.k.a. Honeycomb), which will support for tablet-optimized apps. OS version and device type may therefore have a direct impact on a tablet's app support (including security apps).
  • Finally, tablets are not always independent devices. For example, RIM's PlayBook will pair with BlackBerry smartphones for 3G and email. In fact, a PlayBook cannot reach a BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) on its own. The upcoming BES 5.0.3 will reportedly manage PlayBooks tethered to BlackBerry smartphones in this manner, but those tablets may end up being managed like a hardware extension of the associated BlackBerry.

More on this topic

These are just a few of the ways in which tablet differences may impact security policies and practices. The bottom line: Reuse what you can from the smartphone world, focusing on techniques that worked well for employee-liable devices. But don't fall into the trap of assuming all tablets can be secured just like their smartphone siblings. Take a hard look at how each tablet will be used, and adapt your tablet security best practices to fit.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Lisa Phifer is president and co-owner of Core Competence, a consulting firm focused on business use of emerging network and security technologies. At Core Competence, Lisa draws upon her 27 years of network design, implementation and testing experience to provide a range of services, from vulnerability assessment and product evaluation to user education and white paper development.

This was first published in February 2011

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