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Securing Mobile Networks with Trustworthy Systems

Public and private organizations should seek out vendors that prioritize continued innovation

In our increasingly connected world, the number of mobile phones will exceed the world's population by 2014. Users expect to be able to run diverse applications on these devices at work, home, and practically anywhere else. We assume secure access to any information we need, with an expectation of seamless mobility and a high-quality user experience.

Security is a primary concern, but at the same time users don't want security to get in the way of their experience. Users want to simply be able to find an application in an app store, and then download and use it without having to be concerned about whether it's a trusted application.

Today, the customer chooses a product based on a vendor's ability to fulfill the customer's need, the price point, and vendor attributes such as viability. The "trust" market transition introduces three other essential criteria: the vendor's trustworthiness and transparency, the product's trustworthiness and integrity, and the vendor's commitment to and understanding of security issues. Taken together, these criteria can help a company determine the most trustworthy system for its mobile network.

The Network Is Square One
Fortunately, it is possible to address the hidden risks of choosing a vendor and to reduce the known risks of operating a mobile infrastructure. This ideal - a "trustworthy system" - can be achieved through vendor inspection, delineation between assumed and verifiable trust and, ultimately, a network security infrastructure more advanced than the one in which we operate today.

Mobile device security begins with the network. Networks should be based on verifiably trustworthy network architectures built on secure software and hardware that are backed by prudent supply chain security practices. These elements enable an intelligent network to engage the service provider's access policies and challenge the trustworthiness of mobile devices attempting to access network resources. In turn, mobile device manufacturers and vendors should focus on building verifiable trustworthiness and transparency with regard to their processes and technologies to allow for the creation of secure mobile networks.

Trusted Environments Within Devices
Fortunately, there are many useful ways to ensure that mobile devices are trustworthy. One particularly effective approach is to build a trusted environment within the devices. This is accomplished by partitioning mobile phones and tablets in a logical and secure way, such that they become, in effect, multitenant devices. This enables:

  • The service provider to provide radio service without fear that the user will tinker with security elements within the device, potentially compromising the network's security.
  • The manufacturer to provide secure booting of the device with an initial signed image that can be upgraded over time.
  • The user to run third-party applications without fear of affecting the other device elements.

Industry collaboration and standardization initiatives will make this vision a reality. For instance, the GlobalPlatform organization is developing secure Trusted Execution Environment specifications for mobile devices. A verifiable root of trust is built sequentially from the time a user boots up the hardware (phone), through the loading of the operating system, to the activation of individual applications within this trusted environment.

GlobalPlatform has been working to get mobile device manufacturers moving in the same direction in terms of standardizing a single trusted architecture for mobile devices. The Trusted Computing Group, another standards organization, has been collaborating with GlobalPlatform and working to bring mobile device manufacturers into alignment along common standards of trustworthiness.

Standards for Success
The network's primary role in the context of mobile security and trustworthiness is in the access-control realm. In support of this role, organizations should ensure that their network infrastructures enforce security-policy compliance on all devices that attempt to gain access to the network. Network administrators should use best practices to authenticate, authorize, evaluate, and remediate wired, wireless, and remote users before they can gain access to the network and its resources.

By using protocols such as device posturing, organizations can classify devices that attempt to gain network access and understand who the user is and what policies should be enforced based on the information that is captured from the device and by the authentication of the user. In order to secure the corporate network, the network needs to understand the level of trustworthiness in mobile devices. The convergence of mobile platforms to a common trusted architecture will make the problem easier for network administrators. Once the network discovers and classifies devices, then it can immediately determine whether the device is compliant to a certain common standard.

Government organizations are helping drive common standards by asking vendors to support standards and move away from proprietary solutions. They are also identifying specific standards and certifications upon which they would like to see mobile devices manufactured. Given this push, there will eventually be a convergence to one standardized, secure and trustworthy ecosystem and architecture. At that point, government agencies and other institutions will be able to verify the trustworthiness of a particular device based on its certificates and then allow or deny access based on its assessment of the device's trustworthiness.

Virtualization's Role
Currently, efforts are being made to extend the concept of virtualization in servers to virtualization in mobile devices through hypervisors, providing a more flexible environment to implement a multiple stakeholder model. Cloud and other forms of virtualization provide extended storage, improve resiliency, increase efficiency, and reduce costs; but they also introduce additional security risks. Managing and mitigating these risks demands a new level of planning, user education, and security procedures to create a trustworthy system for securing mobile networks.

Looking Ahead
The importance of selecting a vendor that can ensure trust throughout the entire mobile system cannot be overstated. Taken together, trustworthy systems combine verifiably trustworthy hardware, software, firmware and, as appropriate, the resulting services built upon them, demonstrating in a provable manner the trust and risk management required for today's standards of security and reliability.

Trust is not guaranteed. It must be proven on a continuous basis. Public and private organizations should seek out vendors that prioritize continued innovation to ensure resiliency in customer networks through visibility and transparency while partnering with customers to prepare for any and all threats.

More Stories By Rafael Mantilla Montalvo

Dr. Rafael Mantilla Montalvo is a Principal Engineer at Cisco Systems. He holds a B. Sc. in Electrical Engineering from the Instituto Politécnico Nacional and an MS and PhD in Electrical Engineering from Stanford University.

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