Unlocked Smartphones: Productivity Key or Security Risk?

By: Doug Bonderud| - Leave a comment

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Mobility is quickly becoming mission-critical across industries. From health care to retail and transportation to IT, the right mobile strategy is essential to stay competitive. At the forefront of these mobile mandates is bring-your-own-device (BYOD). With basic security issues resolved and productivity benefits realized, this policy has now become ubiquitous across companies.

Now, enterprises are looking for ways to cut costs on BYOD implementations without compromising network controls. As noted by Computer World, many companies are buying unlocked smartphones to skip the cost of contracts and get the right technology in employees’ hands faster. But is this the key to improved productivity or an open door for security risk?

Benefits of Breaking Out

What do enterprises have to gain from making the move from traditional carrier contracts, which are typically two-year terms on popular or cutting-edge smartphones, and instead opting for unlocked devices? While the initial payout for new phones is higher — think $700 to $800 instead of $200 to $300 — companies can save up to 20 percent over two years by choosing their own carrier rather than opting for a lock-in plan, according to Computer World. Per employee, the difference comes in around $3,000 versus $3,800 over the same time period. But apply that $800 savings across 10, 100 or 1000 employees, and the numbers start to add up.

There’s also something to be said for buying devices directly from the manufacturer rather than an intermediary telecommunication company. First, these kinds of sales agreements between original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and carriers are uncommon in most countries. Even in the United States, large carriers are looking to get out of the hardware game and move into selling Wi-Fi, LTE and 5G services directly. Companies can also benefit from buying direct because they skip much of the bloatware that carriers may install before shipping out devices — while all OEMs include some degree of bloatware, it’s better to have it from one source than from two or more.

Open-Door Drawbacks to Unlocked Smartphones

If unlocked smartphones are becoming the norm for both carriers and manufacturers, where’s the drawback to enterprises? Phone Arena highlights two potential problems:

  1. Frequency Bands: LTE networks use a variety of bands, or signals of varying frequencies, to provide LTE service. A combination of both high- and low-frequency band support is critical for solid mobile performance, and IT departments are on the hook to ensure any unlocked smartphone joining the network supports enough viable bands, as well as bands used by local carriers. That means that even if BYOD policies are using pay-as-you-go plans, carriers remain essential.
  2. Total Performance: Environmental conditions such as elevation, weather and humidity can all impact device performance. Carriers have designed their networks to play nice with the smartphones they sell. Therefore, these phones will often outperform unlocked devices even if their basic hardware specifications match, making fine-tuning by IT departments a must for unlocked phones.

Open-door smartphone policies also come with potential security risks. For example, OEM phones can only be supported through official equipment manufacturer channels — and these are often hit-or-miss when it comes to service. As a result, it’s possible for users to miss critical security updates or get stuck using out-of-date OS versions if the OEM doesn’t have a solid track record of customer service.

And as the recent WannaCry ransomware outbreak demonstrates, older OS iterations pose a serious risk if not properly patched. There’s also the potential for ghost devices to appear on enterprise networks if users purchase Global System for Mobile Communications devices, which require a SIM card for cellular service but not for Wi-Fi access. Without strict access controls in place, it’s possible for employees to connect non-SIM devices to the network without registering them on official lists of mobile hardware.

Long-Term Liability?

So, what’s the bottom line for unlocked smartphones — big benefit or long-term liability? Ultimately, it boils down to cost and time. So long as IT departments have enough staff and space to properly vet new phones, ensure devices are regularly updated and work with local networks, the cost savings at scale might well outweigh the potential security slip-ups.

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About The Author

Doug Bonderud

Freelance Writer

Doug Bonderud is an award-winning writer with expertise in technology and innovation. In addition to writing for Pivot Point, Security Intelligence, The Content Standard and Kaspersky, Doug also writes for companies such as McMurray/TMG and Straight North.

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