Deep Dives

Unmanaged Devices Run Rampant in 47% of Companies

Elaine Atwell

Tl;dr: Kolide’s Shadow IT report shows that 47% of companies allow employees to access their resources on unmanaged devices, authenticating via credentials alone.

In 2023, corporate cybersecurity is at something of a turning point. Companies are very concerned about hacks and data breaches, and are throwing resources at their security teams.

In particular, companies are investing in Zero Trust, a security framework that restricts access to sensitive resources based on a user’s identity and security posture. According to Okta’s 2022 study, 97% of companies are currently launching Zero Trust initiatives, up from just 16% in 2019.

So, what exactly is driving this urgency? Why, after years of complacency, does security have the attention of the C-suite? The answer lies in employee devices, human psychology, and of course, a global pandemic.

The Origins of the Unmanaged Device Problem

Let’s say you’re an engineer. Before COVID, you went to work in an office, and you used the laptop the company assigned to you–the one equipped with management software that ensured your OS was up-to-date and your firewall stayed on. If you’d brought your personal, unmanaged laptop into work, that would have felt like a deliberate breach of the rules.

Then COVID happened. Fast-forward to 2023 and you’re working from home, where you can keep your personal laptop right there on the desk next to your corporate computer. One day, there’s a data visualization app you want to try out, but you can’t do it on your managed device, so you just switch to the personal one. It’s right there! Then you need to feed the app some real data, so you email or airdrop it to yourself. (You promise yourself to delete it later.)

Suddenly you realize that you can log into most of your company apps on your (cooler, faster) personal laptop. And since you’re not getting any angry emails from IT, you figure it must be okay. Soon, what started as a one-time bending of the rules becomes a full-time habit.

Meanwhile, more and more SaaS apps are accessible outside your company’s VPN (assuming it has one). You’re a responsible engineer, so you wouldn’t install the corporate VPN on your personal device; that would clearly be a rule violation. But if you just happen to forget which device you’re using, and you log into a SaaS app like you normally do, that doesn’t feel like deliberate malfeasance. Plus, you’re allowed to log in on your personal phone anyway, so what’s the problem?

These choices feel harmless on an individual level, but they have played out in countless home offices across the world. And so we have a problem where one previously did not exist: the proliferation of unmanaged devices accessing sensitive resources.

Our research shows that, despite investing in security tools that promise total visibility, 47% of companies still permit access to unmanaged devices outside the reach of those tools.

This single data point should be extremely alarming to anyone interested in security since unmanaged and personal devices introduce a host of security concerns:

  • Attackers can use their own devices to impersonate employees using phished credentials.
  • Unmanaged devices can be compromised by malware—that’s what happened in the recent LastPass data breach.
  • Employees on unmanaged devices can use unapproved tools that would be detected and blocked on a managed device–for example, AI-powered browser extensions that siphon up sensitive data.

All these risks fall under the umbrella term of Shadow IT: hardware and software that is not visible to or capable of being managed by an organization.

Let’s make it clear: Unmanaged devices are Shadow IT and Shadow IT is incompatible with a successful Zero Trust architecture.

Google’s famous BeyondCorp initiative—widely credited with kickstarting Zero Trust security—plainly states that “only managed devices can access corporate applications.” Yet this research reveals that unmanaged and potentially unsecure devices access sensitive resources on a massive scale.

What Are Unmanaged Devices?

First, let’s establish what an “unmanaged” device is. NIST defines the term as: “A device inside the assessment boundary that is either unauthorized or, if authorized, not assigned to a person to administer.” In simpler terms, an unmanaged device is not subject to centralized control from an IT or security team.

Managed devices, by contrast, are equipped with software—typically a mobile device management (MDM) solution—that allows administrators to dictate what a user can do, mandate what software can and can’t be installed, and remotely wipe devices.

There are a few general situations in which unmanaged devices might be permitted to access company resources:

  • Employees working on their personal computers used as part of a BYOD policy
  • Employees accessing company applications–often email, Slack, and other messaging tools–on their personal mobile devices
  • Devices outside the scope of existing management solutions, such as Linux endpoints, which are incompatible with MDMs
  • Third-party contractors and vendors not subject to centralized management
  • Unknown devices, which could be an employee logging in on a friend’s computer or in a public library, or a threat actor logging in with stolen employee credentials
Unmanaged vs Personal Devices
In our survey, we mostly asked respondents about “personal devices,” since some non-technical users weren’t familiar with the term “managed devices.” Many people use these terms interchangeably, but while there’s a lot of overlap in the unmanaged/personal Venn diagram, some companies do install management software on their employees’ personal devices. For instance, a graphic designer may work on their own, purpose-built PC, but still consent to installing MDM when they join a company. In general, though, companies do not exert the same level of control over devices they do not own.

Security-minded organizations try to minimize the risks of unmanaged devices by assigning company-issued laptops to employees instead of going the BYOD route and by implementing MFA to make it harder for attackers to log in on unknown devices.

Despite that, unmanaged devices creep in, whether through Linux users, contractors, mobile devices, or executives who opt out of centralized management. That last problem is more prevalent than you might assume. Our data shows that the higher you go in the org chart, the more likely you are to find people working on their personal devices.

In fact, one consistent thread in this research was that executives and security practitioners engage in some of the riskiest behaviors of everyone we surveyed.

The Security Risks of Unmanaged Devices

When we asked what types of work people were doing on their personal devices, the most common answers were email and collaboration tools. That’s not surprising, since those are the applications most likely to be on mobile devices, and companies are understandably reluctant to install invasive agents on their workers’ phones.

That being said, it’s a mistake to assume that these applications are “low-risk” just because the behavior is commonplace. There’s plenty of sensitive informationin email and Slack, and they can give an attacker a foothold into a network.

But employees aren’t just checking their email on their cell phones; they’re doing real work on real computers.

That becomes clear when we separate this data by role. 49% of developers report doing software development on personal devices, and 35% of security professionals use personal devices to manage cloud infrastructure. It’s safe to assume that this type of work isn’t happening on phones.

To quote the report: “This is where security risks start to skyrocket. A bad actor can use a security flaw in an unmanaged device to break into the production environment,as in the LastPass breach. Even a simple smash-and-grab of a laptop can turn into a nightmare if that laptop is full of PII, and IT has no way to remotely wipe it.

Lest we forget, a compromised device has a wealth of information right on its hard drive. We already know from our Sensitive Data report that employees download sensitive data onto their devices at 83% of companies, and only 38% have a policy prohibiting employees from storing plain-text access credentials on their devices.

Why Employees Use Personal Devices

We’ve established that unmanaged devices are inherently risky, so we wanted to understand why workers chose to use their non company-issued devices anyway. The answers ran the gamut, but three of the top six reasons related to avoiding security requirements. (That’s another data point that shows the overlap between personal and unmanaged devices, since getting around security wouldn’t be possible on a managed device.)

Ironically, security professionals were the most likely to report that they used their own devices to get around security. 28% said that “Getting through all the work-related security requirements (usernames/passwords, VPN, etc.) is frustrating,” compared to just 15% of respondents in IT and 21% in business roles.

(Also, in a fun fact that didn’t make the final report, 38% of executives reported that they forgot their device in the office, compared to 28% of managers and just 15% of frontline employees.)

Download Kolide’s Shadow IT Report

All the data above comes from Kolide’s Shadow IT Report. (Sadly, the title “What We Do In The Shadows” was already taken.)

This report examines several facets of the Shadow IT problem, as well as the cultural conditions that allow it to flourish. Our findings reveal that executives, security teams, and frontline workers suffer from a lack of communication and transparency, and often make incorrect assumptions about each others’ behavior.

To read the full report, please fill out the form below.

About Kolide Device Trust

As you’ve probably guessed, we didn’t create this report just because Shadow IT is an interesting topic. It’s also a problem we’re actively trying to solve.

Kolide’s Device Trust solution for Okta can stop unmanaged and unsecure devices from accessing your company’s cloud apps. Kolide fixes many of the shortcomings with existing solutions.

  • Kolide works on Linux (and Windows and Macs and Android and iOS).
  • Kolide provides a lightweight, non-intrusive form of management that employees are comfortable putting on their mobile devices and third-party contractors are willing to install on their computers. Unlike MDM, Kolide can’t remotely wipe a device, and we have a privacy center for users that explicitly lists all the data we collect and who can see it.
  • It doesn’t create the kinds of productivity disruptions (like forced restarts) that lead executives to opt out of device management.

To learn more, keep exploring the website or watch our on-demand demo.

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