Analysis

Smartwatch security advice from the People's Liberation Army

Davey Winder reveals an odd report warning that wearable devices are a risk to national security

Earlier this month a rather odd report appeared in the People's Liberation Army Daily, itself a rather odd 'newspaper' which acts as military mouthpiece for Chinese government policy.

The report - and I use that term very loosely as on closer inspection I suspect that 'work of fiction' would be more appropriate - seems to warn members of the PLA against buying or using wearable devices as they are a risk to national security.

The story itself is very confusing, as it relates to a soldier who was apparently using a smartwatch to take a selfie with his comrades in arms. Odd as it sounds, I think the People's Liberation Army may just have a point, and one that the enterprise might do well to at least consider.

The story itself goes on to warn about the use of any wearable device which has an ad hoc network capability and which, therefore, has the potential in a military scenario to divulge location and movement data to an enemy hacker.

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Still not convinced that this should mean the CEO is told his Apple Watch isn't allowed in the building? There's little danger of your organisation going on top secret military manoeuvres any time soon.

However, researchers at Context Information Security have coded an app which can sniff the Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) signals used by many wearables in order to track users within 100 metres. While it's not clear how that would be used in a military scenario, as a proof of concept it's interesting, although not enough to worry the CEO or the IT security bods in the enterprise truth be told.

Look at it from a different perspective: what if I were to rephrase the PLA warnings from "smartwatch classified photography" and "GPS tracking of troop movements by unauthorised parties" to passive collection of data and the ongoing unauthorised transmission of that data to a third party instead? Does that make you sit up and pay a little more attention? Just don't make me use the BYOD word...

Too late, BYOD is on the table now and so it should be. Wearables are devices, and even more likely to be brought by users into the workplace without the knowledge or approval of the IT department.

A pair of Google Glasses isn't exactly inconspicuous and a fitness tracker may not appear to present a huge threat to data security, but what about the increasingly clever generation of smartwatches?

The PLA have got one thing right and that is the potential for any networked device to be a security threat. Because of that, include wearables of all flavours in your BYOD policy.

If the user can install applications outside of organisational security and privacy policy control then it is a risk. If the user can share data between that device and an ad hoc network, including cloud storage applications, then it is a risk. If the device is covered by organisational policy and security controls then that risk is at least mitigated. 

If even the PLA knows this, make sure you and your IT department do too. 

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