By DAVID S. JOACHIM
February 21, 2006
It is the corporate version of keeping up with the Joneses: every day,
it seems, someone arrives at the office with a shiny new gadget that
combines a cellphone with all sorts of features you used to find only
on your computer. They can get e-mail messages, surf the Web, manage
contact lists and calendars, and even create Word and Excel documents
that can run on a conventional PC.
These smart phones and hand-held computers are so powerful that many
office workers now travel without their laptops. Why bother with a
clunky box that takes several minutes to start up and connect to a
network, when you have a device that is always online and can access
information on demand?
At first, owners and operators of small businesses may see benefits to
this trend. After all, workers are paying for their own little devices
in the name of convenience. But, it turns out, they are also giving
their technology departments a big headache.
That is because these devices represent a sizable security risk. For
one, they are configured to hop from Wi-Fi to cellular networks
easily, exposing them to deliberate thievery of data. But a bigger
threat, analysts say, is that small things are easier to lose, raising
the prospect that confidential business files will get in the wrong
Pocket-size devices are misplaced all the time =97 travelers left 85,000
cellphones and 21,000 hand-held computers in Chicago taxis during a
six-month period last year, according to a survey by Pointsec Mobile
Technologies, a maker of security software. And as these devices
become capable of storing larger volumes of data, some experts are
concerned about the increasing vulnerability of those files.
Analysts say that workers are too caught up with buying the latest
gadgets, forgetting that their data is far more valuable than the
device it runs on.
That is why some companies, realizing the potential for damage, are
getting ahead on mobile security by actually buying small gadgets for
their employees, albeit with security strings attached. Seitlin, a
small insurance brokerage based in Miami, illustrates the point.
The firm decided to buy Palm Treo cellphone-organizers for about 30 of
its 250 employees. The company could then dictate what data was stored
on the devices, and it could install software to monitor them from
afar and even lock them over the air if they fell into the wrong
hands, said Ed Whipple, the company's vice president for sales and
Seitlin sales agents, rather than carry client records on their Treos,
must use a Web site to access claims histories and other private
information. These files can be viewed but not stored on the devices
through an online service called Nexsure from XDimensional
Technologies. If an agent on the road is offline and needs information
about a client, he calls the office for it, Mr. Whipple said.
If an employee reports that his cellphone is stolen, Mr. Whipple can
send a text message to the device, which locks it and asks for a
security code, using software called Butler. If the security code is
not entered immediately, the memory on the device is wiped clean.
The catch is that the Treo must be turned on and transmitting over a
wireless or cellular network for Butler to work. For this reason, some
companies set up their devices to store all data on a removable SD
memory card, which scrambles the data and renders it useless if the
card is removed.
Seitlin also uses software from Intellisync that allows Treos to act
like BlackBerry devices and automatically send e-mail messages without
the user having to manually download them. This also allows the
devices to stay synchronized with a server in the office.
"That's the beautiful thing," Mr. Whipple said. "If I drop my Treo in
the water tomorrow, I can go out and buy another one," and the
technology department can rebuild the software on a new one to look
just like the old one, including all his personal contacts and
calendars. This can be done in minutes over the air.
John Pescatore, a security analyst at Gartner, a market research
company, said that forcing all users to synchronize their data to a
single server over the air has another benefit over letting them use
their office PC's for backing up data: it creates a log of all
information moving to and from the devices. Monitoring software can be
set up to search through the data exchanges to make sure no
confidential data passes to unauthorized devices, he said.
Mr. Pescatore expects this year to be a turning point for mobile
security, in the same way that personal firewalls and antivirus
software on PC's gained importance early in the decade because of
viruses like I Love You and Melissa. "The market doesn't demand
security until something bad happens," he said.
Of course, security breaches get the most attention when they happen
at big companies. But as hardware and software prices have dropped in
recent years, small businesses are catching up to larger ones in terms
of technology =97 and vulnerability.
By the end of the year, smart phones with so much storage and
processing power will represent about half of all cellphones in the
United States, compared with about 30 percent today, Mr. Pescatore
said. The proliferation could get people in the habit of sending one
another executable files like games, which can carry viruses.
More than that, the success of devices that use Microsoft's mobile
operating system will mean a decline in the diversity of software, Mr.
Pescatore added. Just as Microsoft's domination in PC's made it
attractive for programmers to write viruses for Windows, the same
could happen to hand-held devices.
In computing, as in nature, diversity is the great inoculator.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company
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