Microsoft Surface RT, a quick insight

After being on the market for a few months now, Microsoft started quite a large advertising campaign in Germany for its new Surface RT . We had a comprehensive look at the new tablet PC and here are a few thoughts and impressions:

Running a slightly reduced ARM version of Windows 8, I heard somebody calling it “Windows 8 Home”, which in comparison to older versions hits the spot, Microsoft offers an easily usable interface.¬†Software is reduced to market apps (the minimal run level on a plain Windows is 0, any, and 8, Microsoft, on Windows RT), so you can’t just install your favourite app, or can you?
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iOS Hardening Configuration Guide

Hi everybody,
eye-catching title of this post, huh?

Actually there is some justification for it ;-), that is bringing this excellent document covering the exact topic to your attention.
Other than that this post contains some unordered reflections which arose in a recent meeting in a quite large organization on the “common current iPad topic” (executives would like to have/use an iPad, infosec doesn’t like the idea, business – as we all know – wins, so bring external expertise in “to help us find a way of doing this securely” yadda yadda yadda).
Which – given those nifty little boxes are _consumer_ devices which were probably never meant to process sensitive corporate data – might be a next-to-impossible task… at least in a way that satisfies business expectations as for “usability”…[btw: can anybody confirm my observation that there’s a correlation between “rigor of restriction approach” to “number of corporate emails forwarded to private webmail accounts”?]

Anyway, in that meeting – due to my usual endeavor to look at things in a structured way – I started categorizing flavors of data wiping. I came up with
a) device-induced (call it “automatic” if you want) wipe. Here the trigger (to wipe) comes from the device itself, usually after some particular condition is met, which might be

  • number of failed passcode entries. This is supposed to help against an opportunistic attacker who “has found an iPad somewhere” and then tries to get access. Still, assuming a 4-digit passcode, based on their distribution the attacker might have a one-in-seven chance to succeed when the number of passcodes-to-fail is set to ten (isn’t this is the default setting? I don’t use such a device so I really don’t know ;-)).
  • check some system parameter (“am I jailbroken?”) and then perform a wipe.This somehow raises a – let’s call it – “matrix problem”: “judge the world’s trustworthy state from the own perspective and then delete my memory if found untrustworthy”. But how can I know my decision is a correct one if my own overall (“consciousness”) state might heavily depend on the USB port I’m connected to…
  • phone home (“Find My iPhone”, find out “I’m lost or stolen”, quickly wipe myself.This one requires a network connection, so a skilled+motivated attacker going after the data on the device will prevent this exact (network) connection. As most of you probably already knew ;-).

b) remote-wipe. That largely overhyped feature going like “if we learn that one of our devices is lost or stolen, we’ll just push the button and, boom, all the data on the device is wiped remotely”.

Unfortunately this one requires that the organization is able to react once the state of the device changed from “trustworthy environment” to “untrustworthy environment”. Which in turn usually relies on processes involving humans, e.g. might require people to call the organization’s service desk to inform them “I just lost my iPad”… which, depending on various circumstances that I leave the reader to imagine, might happen “in close temporal proximity to the event” or not …
And, of course, a skilled+motivated attacker will prevent the network connection needed for this one, as stated above.

So, all these flavors of wiping have their own share of shortcomings or pitfalls. At some point during that discussion I silently asked myself:

“How crazy is this? why do we spend all these cycles and resources and life hours of smart people on a detective+reactive type of control?”

Why not spend all this energy on avoiding the threat in the first place by just not putting the data on those devices (which lack fundamental security properties and are highly exposed to untrustworthy human behavior and environments)?
Which directly leads to the plea expressed in my Troopers keynote “Do not process sensitive data on smartphones!” (but use those just as display terminals to applications and data hosted in secure environments).

Yes, I know that “but then we depend on network connectivity and Ms. CxO can’t read her emails while in a plane” argument. And I’m soo tired of it. Spending so much operational effort for those few offline minutes (by pursuing the “we must have the data on the device” approach) seems just a bit of waste to me [and, btw, I’m a CxO “of company driven by innovation” myself ;-)]. Which might even be acceptable if it wouldn’t expose the organization to severe risks at the same time. And if all the effort wasn’t doomed anyway in six months… when your organizations’ executives have found yet another fancy gadget they’d like to use…

Think about it & have a great sunday,


PS: as we’re a company with quite diverse mindsets and a high degree of freedom to conduct an individual lifestyle and express individual opinions, some of my colleagues actually think data processing on those devices can be done in a reasonable secure way. See for example this workshop or wait for our upcoming newsletter on “Certificate based authentication with iPads”.

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