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Mobile identity waxes, mobile malware wanes at RSA Conference 2015

by User Not Found | Apr 27, 2015

While mobility was not the dominant theme at the 2015 RSA Conference, the security of mobile data, devices and connections were undercurrents in many keynotes, conversations at the show. Mobile identity and mobile malware were two issues that bubbled up to the top of the buzz and discussions at this year’s event. However, these two trends have very different trajectories in terms of relevance to enterprise IT security.

On the rise is identity; the factor of “who” an employee is — including their roles and access rights — has eclipsed the factors of “what” (what computing device they are using) and “where” (the user’s physical location) when it comes to mobile worker management and security. As employees integrate personal devices into their work activities, identity has become the most essential control points for securing mobile workers and what they do on line, and on business networks and cloud services. Login/password credentials for computers and networks have existed for a generation, but modern identity platforms now provide greater access control context. Identity, federated across internal IT systems or across cloud services, can seamlessly link together disparate systems and applications, connecting tools such as business systems, collaboration. 

Identity is being integrated into all types of platforms and systems for controlling mobile workforce activity. Vendors I spoke with at the show — as varied as Cisco, F5, PulseSecure, Good Technology, IBM, Swivel, and Secure Envory — all touted solutions that tie identity deeply into access technologies for mobile workers. This ranged from two-factor authentication solutions on mobile devices, to mobile identity management, which extends access to corporate apps, data stores, Wi-Fi, VPN and cloud services. It’s a mistake to call any one technology a silver bullet, but mobile identity seems to be emerging as a good foundation for solving a wide range of mobile security concerns. 

Mobile malware, as I mentioned, was another key topic at RSA. Dozens of vendors at the conference touted endpoint software and solutions aimed at quashing bad apps and software on phones and tablets. Once the next IT security bugbear on the horizon, the mobile malware threat has largely turned out to be a dud in terms of enterprise mobile threat concerns. To be sure, most enterprise still view malicious code and software as a top concern, but one focused on traditional PC systems, or attacks on infrastructure, such as Web sites or databases and date repositories. The repeat of the pain and suffering from the PC virus era predicted for mobile hasn’t come yet, and likely won’t. 

From a security stand point, Android has been the poster child for mobile malware threats for the last several years. Due to Android’s open nature (the software is open source, widely forked among multiple providers, with apps available from myriad online stores) it is the least-trusted mobile OS by organizations across all verticals, regions and sizes, according to Strategy Analytics’ 2014 Enterprise Survey. However, in a session at RSAC on Android platform security, Adrian Ludwig - Android Security - Lead Engineer at Google, shared some sobering, and somewhat counterintuitive, data and research on the state of security for the most-used mobile OS on the planet.

Based on Google data, mobile malware is actually on the decline, Google’s Ludwig said at his RSA session. While Android malware proliferated on Google Play and other app stores over the past few years, the rate of installation of “potentially harmful apps” (PHAs) was reduced by 50% in 2014, according to Ludwig (who’s findings were based on Google’s 2014 Android Security Year in Review, which was released in April). Specifically, spyware installations, or apps that gather or reveal personal data to unknown third parties, were down 90% in 2014, while Google also saw a 60% decrease in SMS Fraudware — which sends texts to premium numbers, profiting the number owners). Meanwhile Ransomeware (malware which encrypts data on phones, forcing users to pay to unscramble it) was down to less than .03% of app installs.

What’s stymieing mobile malware installs on android? According to Google, it’s built in safeguards in the Android OS, such as its SELinux underpinnings (a secure version of the OS, developed by the NSA in the ‘00s), vigilance of app store purveyors, and less interest by bad actors in creating the malicious code in the first place. (They’re focusing more on those PC systems and IT/Internet infrastructure — targeting the former to gain access to the latter).  

Of course, mobile identity and malware weren’t the only security issues under the RSAC 2015 spotlight relevant to the mobile workforce. We’ll have a more detailed roundup of announcements and trends in mobile security from the show in a forthcoming SA Insight. 

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