Are “Beneficial Viruses” The Future Of Mobile Security?


Could viruses actually protect company data on an iPhone or iPad?

The BYOD movement has transformed the relationship between IT staffers and other employees in a wide range of companies. While there are benefits to BYOD, there are also headaches – and securing data on personal devices and/or securing the devices themselves is one of the biggest. While there’s an ongoing discussion about whether to manage data, apps, or devices, right now most companies are developing a strategy that has a mix of approaches.

All that could change if the mobile management industry unfolds the way Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney expects. Dulaney is an advocate of creating what he calls “beneficial viruses” that companies can layer into apps and data itself – the idea being that the data could delete itself if it becomes compromised.

It’s an intriguing approach and one that Dulaney recently described to Computerworld’s Matt Hamblen. Despite being described as a virus, the approach is really more like DRM systems esposued by the entertainment industry. If someone is accessing confidential data in a way that the system detects is outside of approved parameters, the data deletes itself. One could describe the approach as smart data.

Inside every piece of data there would be a beneficial virus that whenever the data found itself in the wrong place, it would say, ‘I don’t see a license to be here and I will delete myself.

The approach certainly has potential. Whether it can easily be integrated into every piece of data is an open question. At a data level, it could require expanding the formats of various file types. At the least, it would require some very powerful metadata.

The approach might work better at an app level, where it would be an extension of some of the mobile app and mobile information management paradigms. Companies like Accellion and Good  already incorporate a model for secure data storage. It isn’t a stretch to see that system expanded in the direction the Dulaney describes. More likely, this approach could be part of the evolution of mobile OSes – where the OS itself offers an DRM-like API.

For iPhones and iPads, there’s another question – would Apple allow apps that take this approach into the App Store? Use of custom APIs might be a needed component for such a solution and Apple routinely rejects apps for using such mechanisms. That means that if Apple doesn’t offer the solution, it might be difficult for other companies to make it a reality on iOS devices.

Ultimately, it is an intriguing concept and one that could be viable, but one that could also be problematic to effectively introduce into the mobile market space.

  • BrianDuckering
    Ryan, you’ve hit closer to the mark than you may realize, especially by identifying the apps as the practical control point today. After all, on iOS devices data does not really exist independently of the apps. The technology you are referring to (perhaps inadvertently) is generally referred to as mobile application management (MAM), and the technology is already on the market. I’m with Symantec, and with technologies like Nukona, which we recently acquired, all sorts of controls can be applied directly to applications, like authentication, encryption, copy control, as well as the poison pill you refer to in case the device has not “checked in” in a prescribed period of time. I don’t know if the data itself will ever have the “virus” you describe,  but we fortunately already have the app-level equivalent for now.

    Brian Duckering