IT struggles to control security, bandwidth on tethered devices

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Tethered smartphones and tablets challenge IT's control of devices and network resources

Remote users have cut the wires that connect them to the network, literally.

Today, anyone with a mobile device that supports tethering and has an active wireless connection can use it to link a PC, laptop or other mobile device to the Internet. Typically, tethering happens via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth over a 3G or 4G network, which means users can connect virtually anywhere at any time and — since many mobile devices can become mobile hotspots — using anyone’s device. The impetus for tethering is its ease of use. Phones often ship with a Wi-Fi hotspot mode built in, and even those that don’t are simple to upgrade using free downloadable apps, taking IT out of the equation.

While this may be a relief for users who previously relied on an Ethernet connection and USB modem or an aircard installed on a laptop to get online, it’s a challenging development for IT administrators, said Albert Lee, an analyst with Enterprise Management Group. “From an IT perspective, when you set up a user to access the network with a laptop, you have all the control,” he explains. “The laptop starts in IT, so you can make sure there’s the right security in place to protect the data while in transit and on the client side and the network. Now, with tethering, the control is lost. It’s up to IT to track down all the devices and make sure they have a secure connection.”

If they don’t, one of two things may happen. The first is fairly innocuous: Someone may “borrow” your bandwidth, using your wireless connection to access the Internet. The other is more nefarious. Someone can intercept your packets or, even worse, gain access to your laptop or network. To mitigate the problem, IT has to jump back in and ensure that the same technology that kept the laptop safe — strong encryption, a good password, and a firewall or VPN connection — is there on the mobile device, said Sascha Segan, lead analyst for mobile devices at PCMag.com. “The real breakthrough has been how easy it is to tether, so people are doing it without consulting IT,” he said. “You’ve got to get those devices in so you can set them up safely.” Richard Schum, senior industry analyst at research firm INPUT said that, in some cases, agencies and organizations may just want to eliminate the threat completely. “The issue is that once you’re tethered, essentially you’ve got wireless access to the Internet,” he said. “That can be a big problem. Some administrators may just need to lock the devices down so tethering can’t happen.”

Putting a Cap on IT

While tethered security is the most pressing issue for IT administrators, there are other things to think about as well. For instance, while some employees might think twice about downloading videos on their mobile device, it can become very appealing to stream live content onto a laptop, said PCMag.com’s Segan. Those agencies that have limited data plans can see mobile bills skyrocket when this happens. Even those organizations that have unlimited plans can run into trouble if their employees start using an inordinate amount of bandwidth, said Segan. “The providers that don’t charge you for going over your data allocation may choke down your data speed for the rest of the month, which will impact productivity for those who rely on their devices for
business applications and usage,” he said.

Segan suggests setting up alerts that monitor all of your wireless accounts and ping you if any of those devices or monthly plans start getting close to their data allocation. You can also approach this problem from a process perspective, suggested Dr. Michael Salsburg, a spokesperson for the Computer Measurement Group, a nonprofit group focused on ensuring the efficiency and scalability of IT service delivery. “There’s no way to block [tethered data access] for specific uses, but you can set up a policy and let users know that they can tether for business but not for video, and make the employees who go over their data limits personally responsible for those extra charges,” he said.

About the Author

Karen J. Bannan is a freelance writer for 1105 Government Information Group’s Content Solutions unit. This Snapshot report was commissioned by the Content Solutions unit, an independent editorial arm of 1105 Government Information Group. Specific topics are chosen in response to interest from the vendor community; however, sponsors are not guaranteed content contribution or review of content before publication. For more information about 1105 Government Information Group Content Solutions, please email us at GIGCustomMedia@1105govinfo.com