Consumerization and Corporate IT Security
If you’re a typical wired American, you’ve got a bunch of tech tools you like and a bunch more you covet. You have a cell phone that can easily text. You’ve got a laptop configured just the way you want it. Maybe you have a Kindle for reading, or an iPad. And when the next new thing comes along, some of you will line up on the first day it’s available.
So why can’t work keep up? Why are you forced to use an unfamiliar, and sometimes outdated, operating system? Why do you need a second laptop, maybe an older and clunkier one? Why do you need a second cell phone with a new interface, or a BlackBerry, when your phone already does e-mail? Or a second BlackBerry tied to corporate e-mail? Why can’t you use the cool stuff you already have?
More and more companies are letting you. They’re giving you an allowance and allowing you to buy whatever laptop you want, and to connect into the corporate network with whatever device you choose. They’re allowing you to use whatever cell phone you have, whatever portable e-mail device you have, whatever you personally need to get your job done. And the security office is freaking.
You can’t blame them, really. Security is hard enough when you have control of the hardware, operating system and software. Lose control of any of those things, and the difficulty goes through the roof. How do you ensure that the employee devices are secure, and have up-to-date security patches? How do you control what goes on them? How do you deal with the tech support issues when they fail? How do you even begin to manage this logistical nightmare? Better to dig your heels in and say “no.”
But security is on the losing end of this argument, and the sooner it realizes that, the better.
The meta-trend here is consumerization: cool technologies show up for the consumer market before they’re available to the business market. Every corporation is under pressure from its employees to allow them to use these new technologies at work, and that pressure is only getting stronger. Younger employees simply aren’t going to stand for using last year’s stuff, and they’re not going to carry around a second laptop. They’re either going to figure out ways around the corporate security rules, or they’re going to take another job with a more trendy company. Either way, senior management is going to tell security to get out of the way. It might even be the CEO, who wants to get to the company’s databases from his brand new iPad, driving the change. Either way, it’s going to be harder and harder to say no.
At the same time, cloud computing makes this easier. More and more, employee computing devices are nothing more than dumb terminals with a browser interface. When corporate e-mail is all webmail, corporate documents are all on GoogleDocs, and when all the specialized applications have a web interface, it’s easier to allow employees to use any up-to-date browser. It’s what companies are already doing with their partners, suppliers, and customers.
Also on the plus side, technology companies have woken up to this trend and—from Microsoft and Cisco on down to the startups—are trying to offer security solutions. Like everything else, it’s a mixed bag: some of them will work and some of them won’t, most of them will need careful configuration to work well, and few of them will get it right. The result is that we’ll muddle through, as usual.
Security is always a tradeoff, and security decisions are often made for non-security reasons. In this case, the right decision is to sacrifice security for convenience and flexibility. Corporations want their employees to be able to work from anywhere, and they’re going to have loosened control over the tools they allow in order to get it.
This essay first appeared as the second half of a point/counterpoint with Marcus Ranum in Information Security Magazine. You can read Marcus’s half here.
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