Skip to Content

How to Secure the Virtual Office

The explosion of mobile devices requires cloud-based solutions—and means that companies have to pick and choose what data they protect.
August 2, 2011

Employees are increasingly gobbling up Internet-connected mobile gadgets: they’ll buy nearly a half billion smart phones this year and more than 50 million tablets, nearly triple the number of tablets sold in 2010.

Source: Gartner

Employees using such gadgets to connect remotely to company servers and e-mail accounts can boost efficiency; but the practice also creates security challenges. Companies will have to learn how to overcome those challenges for the distributed office of the future to succeed.

Companies have long recognized that mere “perimeter security” around the office network doesn’t work anymore. That security model was killed off by the laptop. But traditional solutions to managing laptops—including running security software on them and setting up encrypted communications channels known as virtual private networks (VPNs)—don’t really succeed. Attackers have learned to customize malicious programs that can remain undetected for days or weeks. And VPNs only protect against eavesdropping. They’re useless against already-infected devices.

The results can be ugly: witness the Department of Health and Human Service’s Wall of Shame, a list of medical-record-related breaches, including 32 incidents this year, of which 18 were caused by lost portable devices or laptops. Such security issues are widely expected to worsen.

The problems have forced information-technology teams to switch tactics: rather than trying to secure the device, they’re coming up with ways to protect sensitive data even if the devices are compromised.

For example, Heartland Payment Systems, the credit-card processing firm—chastened by the loss of 130 million records during a conventional 2009 server breach—now treats all devices, whether mobile phones or remote point-of-sale terminals, as compromised. So these devices only refer to credit-card data using tokens; that is, special codes that correspond to the actual data, which sits in a protected digital vault, says Kris Herrin, the company’s chief technology officer.

The security firm Symantec focuses on protecting its source code, financial data, and intellectual property, ensuring that such information cannot leave the company without significant protections, says David Thompson, Symantec’s chief information officer.

Cloud security solutions, from companies such as Websense and Zenprise, are another option. Websense’s cloud service brings e-mail and Web security to any device that connects to the Internet. Rather than forcing users to connect back to the home office for security protections, a Websense proxy filters out malicious code and spam. Zenprise, meanwhile, helps companies manage their devices through the Internet. For instance, it can remotely erase the memory on lost or stolen devices.

Given the exploding need, the Radicati Group, an analyst firm, predicts that the market for cloud security services will double, to more than $2 billion in worldwide sales, in the next four years.

A different way of dealing with device proliferation is to place a small secure program—known as a virtual machine—on an employee’s device to interact with corporate data. The model, which is used by an increasing number of banks to enforce security on customers’ computers, lets companies claim a piece of the user’s device as a fenced-in compound.  

When banks use such technology, consumers are allowed to opt-in to the service and install the plug-in. Then, when a consumer connects to his bank’s server, the virtual machine does all the communicating, separate from the device’s original operating system. The technology isn’t foolproof, but it stymies attacks that could get by antivirus and antifraud monitoring.  

“I actually think that enterprises can learn from banks and financial institutions on how to secure their employees these days,” says CEO Mickey Boodaei of Trusteer, which offers banking customers such a solution, and is beginning to offer the technology to companies that want to secure devices owned by employees, but used for work.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

Geoffrey Hinton tells us why he’s now scared of the tech he helped build

“I have suddenly switched my views on whether these things are going to be more intelligent than us.”

Deep learning pioneer Geoffrey Hinton has quit Google

Hinton will be speaking at EmTech Digital on Wednesday.

Video: Geoffrey Hinton talks about the “existential threat” of AI

Watch Hinton speak with Will Douglas Heaven, MIT Technology Review’s senior editor for AI, at EmTech Digital.

Doctors have performed brain surgery on a fetus in one of the first operations of its kind

A baby girl who developed a life-threatening brain condition was successfully treated before she was born—and is now a healthy seven-week-old.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.