Security Manager's Journal: Security flaw shakes faith in Apple mobile devices

And without remote management, getting patches onto devices scattered throughout the organization is hit or miss

Last July, I wrote about serious security vulnerabilities on the Android operating system for mobile devices, which could compromise data as well as the devices themselves, and how this led me to believe Apple phones and tablets were a better choice because they did not have the same underlying security flaws. Sadly, as with all "Apple is more secure" claims, that has proved false.

Last week, Apple released an update known as iOS Version 7.0.6 to repair a security flaw in the SSL encryption implementation that could allow encrypted traffic to be intercepted and decrypted, thus compromising private data. My company's private data, to be precise.

Updates such as this present several challenges to organizations like mine. First, we now need to have a process in place for getting critical security patches on phones, as we do for computers. And that's not easy to do. For computers, we have software that manages patches and can deploy an emergency security fix very quickly, with minimal intervention by system administrators or end users. On phones, we don't.

Remember the bad old days, before patching software existed for PCs? Desktop technicians had to go around to all the computers in an organization and manually patch them, or turn on automatic updates and rely on the end users to allow the installations. That was a long time ago. But with phones and tablets, that's exactly where we are today. We don't have the ability to push out patches. For the iOS 7.0.6 update, I had to send email to everyone with an Apple device imploring them to run the update as soon as possible. I then had to line up a technician to contact the less technically savvy users and walk them through the process. This was time-consuming and inefficient.

The second challenge is with our mobile device management (MDM) software. This software allows me to manage security settings on our mobile devices, but as I discovered with the 7.0.6 update, it can only enforce, not deploy. This means I can use my MDM software to require Apple iOS Version 7.0.6 and above on any Apple device that tries to connect to our network, but I can't use MDM to perform the installation. Inconveniently, this results in noncompliant users getting kicked off the network until they run the update. I don't think too much of a process that works by ticking off users.

Third, this security flaw has put into question the entire security of Apple phones and tablets. Where there's one flaw, there are bound to be more. And I can no longer believe that my company's data is always safe on these devices. We've patched this one hole, for now. What other holes are lurking, yet to be discovered?

Still another challenge is that, to maintain security, we are forced to change the user experience. Several of my company's Apple users had not yet upgraded to iOS Version 7, which has an entirely new interface that requires some learning to be usable. Now, as with computer operating systems, the latest version is the most secure. So I had to get my people on Version 7 for security reasons, without regard to how it will affect their productivity. And I had to do it in a hurry, without proper evaluation and time to create training materials and assist the stragglers with getting up to speed. To me, this is an eerie reminder that we can't stay on any one platform forever -- as with Windows XP, whose support expires this April. That means no more security patches will be released, and security flaws in XP will accumulate from that point forward. And with only two months left, we are not ready. Seems like we're always chasing the tail of the tiger.

This week's journal is written by a real security manager, "J.F. Rice," whose name and employer have been disguised for obvious reasons. Contact him at jf.rice@engineer.com.

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This story, "Security Manager's Journal: Security flaw shakes faith in Apple mobile devices" was originally published by Computerworld.

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