Privacy Advisor

Where IBM Thinks BYOD Technology Is Headed

November 20, 2013

By Sam Pfeifle
Publications Director

Last week, IBM announced it will soon acquire FiberLink, a maker of cloud-based mobile-device-management technology and the MaaS360 product. The news ought to be interesting to privacy professionals on its own, drawing attention to a tech provider that will now have access to IBM’s much larger resources in attempting to solve a problem, in BYOD, with which many struggle.

However, it is also part of what IBM Director of Mobile Security Caleb Barlow called a “string of pearls” that includes the acquisition of Trustseer and the creation of a “cybersecurity software lab” in Israel, staffed with 200-plus researchers who will focus on mobile and application security.

“We’ve been looking at the BYOD space for some time,” said Barlow. “Mobile devices are quickly becoming the primary way people interact with everything.”

What IBM believes it will do with the FiberLink acquisition is bring together sandboxing with transaction protection in one mobile security and privacy platform. Further, the full suite of IBM’s MobileFirst products, Barlow said, will allow firms to not only develop their own apps with Privacy by Design but also allow for trusted mobile transactions and personalized BYOD policy-making.

FiberLink provides that last bit. “We needed two methods of app wrapping, something that scales and something that people actually want to use and not get frustrated with,” Barlow said. FiberLink has “deployed to lots of customers at scale.”

Combined with Trustseer, the IT department could now do all of the traditional mobile device management tasks like wipe corporate data upon an employee’s departure from the company but also do things like scan applications from iOS and Android platforms and provide micro VPN services.

Much of that might fall under IT’s purview, but there’s quite a bit of privacy play here, too. For instance, you’ve got to make sure you can correctly identify what’s corporate data and what’s private data on that mobile device and have an enforceable policy about who can look at what on that mobile device.

“I can almost guarantee you that just by looking at your apps, I can tell whether you’re single or married, your sexual orientation,” said Barlow. “I don’t need to know anything about the data, let alone that the data is even more revealing. I don’t want all of that rolling up to my employer.”

And you’ve got to be able to execute the “legally defensible wipe”—“How do we maintain integrity over what and where the private data is?”

Looking for more information on Bring-Your-Own-Device programs? Check out Close-Up: BYOD in the IAPP Resource Center for the pros and cons of BYOD, guidance on how to create a BYOD policy and more.

What nobody can do yet, and what IBM has in its sights, is automatically vet apps that are downloaded onto a mobile device for things like unnecessary access to contacts, calendar, etc.

IBM also hopes to leverage its own internal privacy team in developing its consumer-facing technology. For this acquisition in particular, Barlow said, the whole internal CIO office was closely consulted in a way that’s rare for IBM transactions.

“We need to solve this for ourselves, as well,” he noted, “and we’ll leverage this transaction by eating our own dogfood. We have 100,000 BYOD devices already, and we’ve had to limit what we do with those things because of concerns over security and privacy. Those are a barrier to mobile adoption. There are things that we want to do that we haven’t been able to do because we have to worry about data infiltration … Getting this right is a critical thing on our radar screen.”

“The Holy Grail on this,” said Barlow, “is that you’ve got to be able to do something with third-party apps.” All of the top Android apps and most of the top iOS apps have hacked variants that mimic their true versions but instead install malware or create opens for data theft. “We have to identify and find those applications that either have hacked variants or just have really cruddy permissions … How do we improve the scanning tools to find vulnerabilities, to find the permissions that don’t make sense? Why does the flashlight app need your location? Why is this other app routinely calling a server around the world?”

Interestingly, Barlow said IBM’s team believes it won’t be long before it will be feasible to be more secure on mobile devices than a laptop.

“If I have the ability to sandbox everything,” he said, “to containerize our corporate data, I’m not stuck in that anti-virus world where I’m dependent on signature analysis. We actually have the opportunity to lead on mobile and eventually go back to the laptop.”

For that, we may just have to see how IBM’s acquisition strategy works out.

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