Employees Wanting Mobile Access May Get it —As 5G Services Come Into Play
By Tobias Naegele
September 22, 2017
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Just about every federal employee has a mobile device: Many carry two – one for work and one for personal use. Yet by official policy, most federal workers cannot access work email or files from a personal phone or tablet. Those with government-owned devices usually are limited to using it for email, calendar or Internet searches.
Meanwhile, many professionals use a work or personal phone to do a myriad of tasks. In a world where more than 70 percent of Internet traffic includes a mobile device, government workers are frequently taking matters into their own hands.
According to a recent FedScoop study of 168 federal employees and others in the federal sector, only 35 percent said their managers supported the use of personal mobile devices for official business. Yet 74 percent said they regularly use personally-owned tablets to get their work done. Another 49 percent said they regularly used personal smartphones.
In other words, employees routinely flout the rules – either knowingly or otherwise – to make themselves more productive.
“They’re used to having all this power in their hand, being able to upgrade and download apps, do all kinds of things instantaneously, no matter where they are,” says Michael Wilkerson, senior director for end-user computing and mobility at VMWare Federal, the underwriter for the research study conducted by FedScoop. “The workforce is getting younger and employees are coming in with certain expectations.”
Those expectations include mobile. At the General Services Administration (GSA), where more than 90 percent of jobs are approved for telework and where most staff do not have permanent desks or offices, each employee is issued a mobile device and a laptop. “There’s a philosophy of anytime, anywhere, any device,” says Rick Jones, Federal Mobility 2.0 Manager at GSA. Employees can log into virtual desktop infrastructure to access any of their work files from any device. “Telework is actually a requirement at GSA. You are expected to work remotely one or two days a week,” he says, so the agency is really serious about making employees entirely independent of conventional infrastructure. “We don’t even have desks,” he says. “You need to register for a cube in advance.”
That kind of mobility is likely to increase in the future, especially as fifth-generation (5G) mobile services come into play. With more wireless connections installed more densely, 5G promises data speeds that could replace conventional wired infrastructure, save wiring costs and increase network flexibility – all while significantly increasing the number of mobile-enabled workers.
When Information Technology (IT) departments don’t give employees the tools and applications they need or want to get work done, they’re likely to go out and find it themselves, using cloud-based apps they can download to their phones, tablets and laptops.
Rajiv Gupta, president of Skyhigh Networks of Campbell, Calif., which provides a cloud-access security service, says his company found that users in any typical organization – federal, military or commercial –access more than 1,400 cloud-based services, often invisibly to IT managers. Such uses may be business or personal, but either can have an impact on security if devices are being used for both. Staff may be posting on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, any of which could be personal but could also be official or in support of professional aims. Collaboration tools like Basecamp, Box, DropBox or Slack are often easy means of setting up unofficial work groups to share files when solutions like SharePoint come up short. Because such uses are typically invisible to the organization, he says, they create a “more insidious situation” – the potential for accidental information leaks or purposeful data ex-filtrations by bad actors inside the organization.
“If you’re using a collaboration service like Microsoft 365 or Box, and I share a file with you, what I’m doing is sharing a link – there’s nothing on the network that I can observe to see the files moving,” he says. “More than 50 percent of all data security leaks in a service like 365 is through these side doors.”
The organization may offer users the ability to use OneDrive or Slack, but if users perceive those as difficult or the access controls as unwieldly (user authentication is among mobile government users’ biggest frustrations, according to the VMWare/FedScoop study), they will opt for their own solutions, using email to move data out of the network and then collaborating beyond the reach of the IT and security staff.
While some such instances may be nefarious – as in the case of a disgruntled employee for example – most are simply manifestations of well-meaning employees trying to get their work done as efficiently as possible.
“So employees are using services that you and I have never even heard of,” Gupta says, services like Zippyshare, Footlocker and Findspace. Since most of these are simply classified as “Internet services,” standard controls may not be effective in blocking them, because shutting down the whole category is not an option, Gupta says. “If you did you would have mutiny on your hands.” So network access controls need to be narrowly defined and operationalized through whitelisting or blacklisting of sites and apps.
Free services are a particular problem because employees don’t see the risk, says Sean Kelley, chief information security officer at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). At an Institute for Critical Infrastructure conference in May, he said the problem traces back to the notion that free or subscription services aren’t the same as information technology. “A lot of folks said, well, it’s cloud, so it’s not IT,” he said. “But as we move from network-based security to data security, we need to know where our data is going.”
The Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act was supposed to empower chief information officers (CIOs) by giving them more control over such purchases. But regulating free services and understanding the extent to which users may be using them is extremely difficult, whether in government or the private sector. David Summitt, chief information security officer (CISO) at the Moffit Cancer Center in Tampa, Fla., described an email he received from a salesman representing a cloud service provider. The email contained a list of more than 100 Moffit researchers who were using his company’s technology – all unbeknownst to the CISO. His immediate reply: “I said thank you very much – they won’t be using your service tomorrow.” Then he shut down access to that domain.
Controlling Mobile Use
Jon Johnson, program manager for enterprise mobility at GSA acknowledges that even providing access to email opens the door to much wider use of mobile technology. “I too download and open documents to read on the Metro,” he said. “The mobile devices themselves do make it more efficient to run a business. The question is, how can a CIO create tools and structures so their employees are more empowered to execute their mission effectively, and in a way that takes advantage not only of the mobile devices themselves, but also helps achieve a more efficient way of operating the business?”
Whether agencies choose to whitelist approved apps or blacklist high-risk ones, Johnson said, every agency needs to nail down the solution that best applies to its needs. “Whether they have the tools that can continually monitor those applications on the end point, whether they use vetting tools,” he said, each agency must make its own case. “Many agencies, depending on their security posture, are going to have those applications vetted before they even deploy their Enterprise Mobility Management (EMM) onto that device. There is no standard for this because the security posture for the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) and the FBI are different from GSA and the Department of Education.
“There’s always going to be a tradeoff between the risk of allowing your users to use something in a way that you may not necessarily predict versus locking everything down,” says Johnson.
Johnson and GSA have worked with a cross-agency mobile technology tiger team for years to try to nail down standards and policies that can make rolling out a broader mobile strategy easier on agency leaders. “Mobility is more than carrier services and devices,” he says. “We’ve looked at application vetting, endpoint protection, telecommunication expense management and emerging tools like virtual mobile interfaces.” He adds they’ve also examined the evolution of mobile device management solutions to more modern enterprise mobility management systems that take a wider view of the mobile world.
Today, agencies are trying to catch up to the private sector and overcome the government’s traditionally limited approach to mobility. At the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Lon Gowan, chief technologist and special advisor to the CIO, says even though half the agency’s staff are in far-flung remote locations, many of them austere. “We generally treat everyone as a mobile worker,” Gowan says.
Federal agencies remain leery of adopting bring-your-own-device policies, just as many federal employees are leery of giving their agencies access to their personal information. While older mobile device management software gave organizations the ability to monitor activity and wipe entire devices; today’s enterprise management solutions enable devices to effectively be split, containing both personal and business data. And never the twain shall meet.
“We can either allow a fully managed device or one that’s self-owned, where IT manages a certain portion of it,” says VMWare’s Wilkerson. “You can have a folder that has a secure browser, secure mail, secure apps and all of that only works within that container. You can set up secure tunneling so each app can do its own VPN tunnel back to the corporate enterprise. Then, if the tunnel gets shut down or compromised, it shuts off the application, browser — or whatever — is leveraging that tunnel.
Another option is to use mobile-enabled virtual desktops where applications and data reside in a protected cloud environment, according to Chris Barnett, chief technology officer for GDIT’s Intelligence Solutions Division. “With virtual desktops, only a screen image needs to be encrypted and communicated to the mobile device. All the sensitive information remains back in the highly-secure portion of the Enterprise. That maintains the necessary levels of protection while at the same time enabling user access anywhere, anytime.”
When it comes to classified systems, of course, the bar moves higher as risks associated with a compromise increase. Neil Mazuranic of DISA’s, Mobility Capabilities branch chief in the DoD Mobility Portfolio Management Office, says his team can hardly keep up with demand. “Our biggest problem at DISA at the secret level and top secret level, is that we don’t have enough devices to go around,” he says. “Demand is much greater than the supply. We’re taking actions to push more phones and tablets out there.” But capacity will likely be a problem for a while.
The value is huge however, because the devices allow senior leaders “to make critical, real-world, real-time decisions without having to be tied to a specific place,” he says. “We want to stop tying people to their desks and allow them to work wherever they need to work, whether it’s classified work or unclassified.”
DISA is working on increasing the numbers of classified phones using Windows devices that provide greater ability to lock down security than possible with iOS or Android devices. By using products not in the mainstream, the software can be better controlled. In the unclassified realm, DISA secures both iOS and Android devices using managed solutions allowing dual office and personal use. For iOS, a managed device solution establishes a virtual wall in which some apps and data are managed and controlled by DISA, while others are not.
“All applications that go on the managed side of the devices, we evaluate and make sure they’re approved to use,” DISA’s Mazuranic told GovTechWorks. “There’s a certain segment that passes with flying colors and that we approve, and then there are some questionable ones that we send to the authorizing official to accept the risk. And there are others that we just reject outright. They’re just crazy ones.”
Segmenting the devices, however, gives users freedom to download apps for their personal use with a high level of assurance that those apps cannot access the controlled side of the device. “On the iOS device, all of the ‘for official use only’ (FOUO) data is on the managed side of the device,” he said. “All your contacts, your email, your downloaded documents, they’re all on the managed side. So when you go to the Apple App Store and download an app, that’s on the unmanaged side. There’s a wall between the two. So if something is trying to get at your contacts or your data, it can’t, because of that wall. On the Android device, it’s similar: There’s a container on the device, and all the FOUO data on the device is in that container.”