Given the growing mix of smartphones and tablets that do double-duty for business and personal use, these devices are among the most difficult company assets to manage and protect. When one of those tools goes missing, not only would the employee's personal information be at risk, but company email, messages, video assets and -- most worrisome -- client contact information, company log-ins and access codes all could be potentially exposed.
Small firms now find themselves having to keep tabs on a constantly-changing roster of employee-owned and managed devices. How should a small business track, manage and protect its smartphone inventory? One solution is to find a combination of software and gadgets that allows you to not only track company-affiliated mobile devices, but protect and manage the work information stored on those devices.
Here are some problems to anticipate and steps to take to head them off:
Lost phones. The first thing to do is to give employees the tools they need to make sure they can find their devices in case they go missing. One way to do that is to attach what amounts to a digital leash to company smartphones.
Tulsa, Okla.-based ZOMM and Santa Barbara, Calif.-based Phone Halo are both devices that alert the user when they're about to leave their smartphone behind. With ZOMM, the user carries a small sensor, say on a keychain. Phone Halo's tag can be attached to keys, a wallet, purse or other items. Both sound an alarm when the user is parted from their phone.
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Cost can be a factor: ZOMM charges $90 for its device and Phone Halo runs $60. So, small companies will need to pick and choose which of their mobile tools are protected.
Data leaks. Remote finding tools are nice, but it's smart to add a second layer of protection that backs up the data on the devices, manages the identity on those devices and wipes data when the phone is lost.
Here we liked Lookout Mobile Security. Based in San Francisco, this free-to-start app is available for both the Android and Apple smartphone platforms, but it also works with tablet computers like the iPad. Lookout lets users automatically back up and restore contacts in case a phone is lost. Lookout Premium -- available only for Android for $3 per month or $30 per year -- goes a step further by letting users lock a lost phone or wipe data from it if it is stolen or misplaced.
Similar features are available for iPhones and iPads using Apple's Find My Phone app, which is available for free in the iTunes store. The app uses Apple's new iCloud to track the user's device as well as manage data on it.
We found RIM's BlackBerry Management Center to be the category leader in terms of security among smartphone devices. The free service lets business users remotely manage multiple RIM devices from a single account. If a phone gets lost, users can lock it and display a message telling whoever finds the phone how it can be returned.
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Users can also wipe the data from a lost or stolen phone and restore settings and content from a lost or broken phone onto a new one. Personal users can set permissions as to what the business administrator can and can't do with their phone.
All that said, be aware of unanticipated problems. Because you will likely be dealing with a variety of phones run by employees, let's face it, there will be issues. Digital leashes like ZOMM are only as good as their carriers. If your employees don't carry car keys or tend to misplace everything -- including their phone and their phone leash -- the system simply won't work.
The same goes for Lookout, which is limited in its ability to track multiple devices under one user account. Employees will also have to alert you quickly when they've misplaced their smartphone, which is a surprising hassle. Without a phone, how do they let you know the phone is gone?
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And then there is the major headache that you are managing these systems from several touch points: Find My Phone works only through the user's personal Apple ID. The BlackBerry Management Center needs its specific RIM interface. MyLookout has its own. So, depending on the size of your firm and the number of devices used, navigating the mash-up of platforms might be a headache.
Bottom line, while there is no mobile security cure-all, with a reasonable effort, the investment in a multistep process to protect yourself and your employees against the worst headaches can be worth the time.