ICO sparks debate on BYOD security

News by Tim Ring

The UK Information Commissioner's Office has issued guidelines to help data controllers secure work data held on employees' smartphones and tablets.

The UK Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has issued guidelines to help data controllers secure work data held on employees' smartphones and tablets, in response to continuing concerns about BYOD security.

But the move has sparked a debate about the best way to safeguard smart devices at work without overly restricting the freedom of users.

ICO technology group manager, Simon Rice, said that with 60 percent of the UK population now owning a smartphone and 20 percent a tablet – and with these devices topping many people's Christmas gift lists - “it is critical employers have a clear policy about personal devices being used at work”.

The ICO is calling on organisations to ensure employee devices used for work are locked with a strong password and to use a secure channel to transfer data, rather than “open Wi-Fi networks in coffee shops”.

It also says organisations need a data-wipe facility in the event the device is lost or stolen, and an “end of contract” policy so that work data is deleted if the employee leaves the company or replaces the device.

Rice told SCMagazineUK.com: “Mobiles and tablets are a risk - they will get lost or stolen. Organisations have to recognise that and make sure there is a strategy in place to deal with it.”

Nigel Stanley, CEO of information security consultancy Incoming Thought, backed the ICO's campaign saying it was necessary even though employee mobile devices have been in the workplace for four or five years.

“It's good to have the ICO doing what they're doing to help data controllers and people responsible for data understand the importance of protecting it on the smartphones,” Stanley told SCMagazineUK.com. “One needs to remember that the vast majority of organisations probably haven't even thought about this.”

He added: “The ability to embrace these devices in a safe and secure way is really quite challenged – and that stems right from the governance statements about what organisations should or shouldn't be doing with these devices, through to security policies.”

But Phil Barnett, UK sales director at Good Technology, warned against “onerous device restrictions”.

In comments emailed to SCMagazineUK.com, he said: “The spectre of fines and/or reputational damage can cause organisations to go into lockdown, but this will severely damage the transformational capability that mobility brings. Therefore CIOs need to deliver top-grade security without compromising user productivity.

“The secret is to secure the data, not just the device. Onerous device restrictions will paradoxically increase risk - employees will work around formal IT security policies, which is what often causes data leaks.”

Barnett added: “Another major issue comes from the ICO's requirement for wiping or immobilising lost/stolen devices. Though the principle is sound, this brute-force approach opens up a range of privacy issues. Even if employees are made to sign these agreements, it is feasible that the destruction of personal data (photos, documents, etc) could result in civil cases.

“Whole devices don't need to be wiped to achieve the goal. If companies ensure data is held in secure containers on devices the need for entire-device wiping doesn't arise.”

Last year, The Royal Veterinary College received an ICO warning after a member of staff lost a camera and it became apparent the organisation had no guidance in place explaining how personal information stored for work should be looked after on personal devices.

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