OMB Gives Agencies First-Ever Security Guidelines to Protect Smartphones and Tablets

Stuart Miles/

The guidance could create significantly more work for officials, industry insider says.

The Office of Management and Budget on Thursday sent agencies instructions for securing government-owned commercial smartphones and tablets in an effort to bring consistency to what had been an ad-hoc patchwork of guidelines. The 104-page compilation of controls -- all are not applicable for every mission -- was accompanied by a choose-your-own-adventure style manual for picking the most appropriate mobile device setup.

Absent from the documents is a list of approved devices (nor are there additional appropriations to help information technology managers incorporate all the specifications recommended, noted some telecommunications consultants). Also, the instructions concentrate more on safeguarding the device, rather than the data.

The instructions are part of a digital government strategy the White House laid out one year ago that called on agencies to “adopt a coordinated approach to ensure privacy and security in a digital age.” 

The departments of Homeland Security and Defense, along with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, developed Thursday’s baseline protocols as first steps only. Later guidance, for example, might focus on continuous monitoring of controls, cryptography, securing the data instead of the device, and ensuring data is only shared with authorized users. 

The protections draw from controls listed in a new edition of the government's cybersecurity compendium -- officially called "SP (Special Publication) 800-53, which was issued in April. Some of the general procedures covered include security awareness and training as well as "penetration testing," or hiring ethical hackers to expose vulnerabilities by trying to break into phones. 

In addition to the technical security measures, IT managers and vendors will find a "decision framework" flowchart diagram that "describes a four-stage process to define a specific business case, examine risks and tradeoffs, and reach a decision on mobile applications, devices and infrastructure elements."

Example questions include: "Is the user prevented from participating in existing workflows with individuals from relevant partner organizations who already have mobile functionality?"

The Pentagon in February released its own plan to execute a military-specific strategy for commercial mobile devices. "I believe the Defense Department will be looking at the same framework -- but in many cases will move toward the stronger security use case" than the "moderate impact" examples depicted in much of Thursday’s literature, said Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting. 

The policies issued should help all civilian and military agencies start moving in the right direction but do not go far enough, he said.

"Up until now, there has not been a clear set of requirements for agencies to use, so agencies have been improvising and, in general, they have defaulted to relatively accessible software," that is not necessarily "acceptable" software, Suss said.

He suggested OMB or the General Services Administration create an approved-products list similar to the catalogues produced by the Pentagon “to validate the claims of manufactured products."

Because the guidelines do not endorse existing mobile brands, models or operating systems, “it leaves the agency with taking this rather complex framework and applying it to a real-world construct,” Suss said. "It's going to create a lot of work for the agencies,” he added. “This comes out with the blessing of OMB, but it doesn't come with funding from OMB, so what we have is another unfunded mandate."

(Image via Stuart Miles/