9 Tips to Help Secure Every Federal Employee’s Mobile Device

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Bad actors increasingly target smartphones and endpoint devices that are generally less protected than government computers.

The ever-increasing use of mobile devices in government agencies means mobile threats will continue to proliferate and federal employees must remain vigilant. 

Nation-state and e-crime groups continue to innovate and refine their mobile attacks to breach devices and steal data, CrowdStrike’s 2019 Mobile Threat Report found. As bad actors increasingly target mobile devices, federal employees should abide by these lessons from the private sector to help secure their mobile devices:

1. Download applications from trusted sources.

Mobile malware is often distributed from third-party sources that do not perform comprehensive checks of their applications, enabling malicious actors to include unwanted code within Trojanized applications. Official sources such as the Apple App and Google Play stores provide some level of verification on the apps they offer limiting the risk of exposure to mobile malware. However, numerous instances of malware have still been distributed via these official channels despite being checked, and users need to be wary of the applications they download. Gaming and mobile banking apps are particularly popular carriers of malicious code.

2. Be on the lookout for phishing messages.

Federal employees should be cautious of emails and SMS texts that prompt you to install applications from untrusted sources. This mechanism is often used by attackers to trick targets into installing mobile malware and compromising the device.

3. Regularly apply security patches to mobile operating systems and applications.

Flaws in legacy operating systems can be exploited by malicious actors to install mobile malware and escalate operating privileges to gain access to data and capabilities on devices. In response, vendors will identify vulnerabilities and develop patches to secure devices from exploitation. These patches need to be installed across all federal agencies at the earliest opportunity to reduce the risk of exposure.

4. Establish security around solid mobile device management processes. 

Federal employees who oversee the usage of mobile devices can protect against mobile malware and reduce the risk of compromising data by restricting which applications employees can install and allowing for automatic deployment of security patches. However, this capability can also provide opportunities to an attacker, who may leverage their own MDM servers to deploy malware. This is why government employees should lock down their work-affiliated devices to ensure they are unable to communicate with untrusted MDM servers. Agencies across the board should establish user security training to minimize the risk posed by phishing techniques which can be used to trick federal employees into enrolling manually with a rogue server. Servers running MDM software for the agency should also be heavily monitored using endpoint protection to ensure they are not compromised from within the network and used to push out malicious updates to mobile devices.

5. Be aware of the supply chain. 

Supply chain problems are industry agnostic and can wreak havoc across sectors, including mobile devices from both an application and end-user perspective. The mobile supply chain issue is one that continually causes problems for two reasons. First, many individuals have applications on their mobile devices for years, creating a concern around not just the application’s initial development but the continuous updates which may be targeted by attackers to get access to mobile devices. Secondly, many mobile applications use third-party libraries meaning the developer may rely on open source or buy a license to enhance their product. This creates an additional blind spot in the supply chain as data may be collected by that third-party compromising security and confidentiality. 

6. Evaluate mobile endpoint detection and response solutions.

The private sector offers numerous solutions that take a visibility-first approach to mobile security. Security teams can see activity, gain deeper insight into behaviors and enable threat hunting and rapid incident investigation. The presence of an enterprise app behavior monitoring capability provides yet another layer of protection, enabling agencies to monitor things such as unauthorized or accidental data exposure and network spoofing. These solutions have proven successful in the private sector and would greatly benefit the public sector.

7. Maintain physical security of physical devices.

Enabling strong passwords, or biometric authentication measures such as fingerprint or facial identification, in addition to ensuring that mobile devices are never left unattended, are practices that can mitigate mobile threats both in the public and private sectors. These additional steps reduce the risk that a malicious actor is able to install malware manually during so-called “evil maid” attacks, in which a security exploit physically targets an unattended device. 

8. Only use secure Wi-Fi networks.

Wi-Fi networks that lack password protection pose potential and serious risks to the security of mobile devices. While they seem legitimate at first, networks may be fake wireless access points created to steal data, credentials, and more. To protect personal and work-related information, federal employees should always connect their mobile devices to secure and protected Wi-Fi networks.      

9. Ensure old devices are wiped.

Due to the sensitive nature of data stored in a government employee’s phone, it is crucial to ensure old devices are wiped clean and restored to factory settings. This prevents the possibility of another individual obtaining the old device and accessing confidential and sensitive data. 

Adam Meyers is vice president of intelligence at CrowdStrike.