Although iOS configuration profiles have long been a security concern for iPhones containing corporate data, advancements in mobile device management and the iOS operating system are easing some of those concerns and keeping configuration profile iPhones safe.
An iPhone configuration profile is an XML file that enables users to load settings and permissions onto an Apple device. In BYOD scenarios, configuration profiles define settings for using devices on corporate networks.
Organizations can create them by using Apple Configurator or a mobile device management (MDM) platform. Deleting an iPhone configuration profile removes all the settings, passcodes, apps and data associated with the profile, thus rendering corporate systems, such as email, CRM applications or other back-end business systems, inaccessible to the device.
While configuration profiles are a useful tool, IT administrators might question whether they present some security vulnerabilities for iPhones in the enterprise. To decide how configuration profiles should fit into a mobile security strategy, it's important to understand how they fit into the landscape of iOS threats.
Are iPhone configuration profiles a legitimate security risk?
Attacks on configuration profiles gained notoriety before the prevalence of MDM platforms in enterprise organizations today. Today's MDM systems provision and secure configuration profiles, locking them down from unauthorized users throughout the mobile device lifecycle. Additionally, advancements in email security policies stand guard against emails bearing malicious configuration profiles sent as part of phishing emails.
As such, many security analysts see the threat of malicious attacks on a configuration profile as nothing more than an inconvenience. That doesn't mean IT should ignore this attack vector entirely -- there's always the possibility the configuration profile might play a part in some future iOS attack. There are no guarantees. Still, this shift goes to show the growing power and effectiveness of professionally managed MDM policies and native security features.
MDM platforms and iOS security
It's important to audit the security of all devices that have access to Google Workspace, Slack and other SaaS back-end systems. Data containerization -- separating corporate data from personal data on BYOD units -- should be a standard security practice on personally owned devices, giving an MDM platform full governance and security controls over corporate resource access.
Containerization is built into iOS, and Apple User Enrollment offers even clearer separation of work and personal data for BYOD iPhones. Additionally, organizations can consider MDM providers, such as Jamf and Kandji, for extra support in managing corporate-owned and BYOD endpoints. Jamf Pro, for example, focuses strictly on Apple device security and enables IT to create a standard configuration profile for corporate-owned and BYOD iPhones.
Today's MDM platforms manage and secure configuration profiles starting at device onboarding. Consequently, if a malicious attack on an MDM platform-managed device targeting a configuration profile were to occur, the configuration profile would become locked down and immovable. While attacks evolve, removing a configuration profile on a managed device effectively locks it out of corporate resources, keeping the organization's data safe from the attacker.
Security features in iOS 16
In addition to implementing MDM, IT teams should be aware of the iOS 16 features they can utilize to improve security on corporate iPhones. An email feature called Brand Indicators for Message Identification, or BIMI, enables the identification of authenticated emails and could serve as an additional tool in the future to alert users to potential phishing emails. Rapid Security Response is another useful feature, which enables admins to automatically deliver essential security improvements to their iOS devices between scheduled software updates.
Another new feature in iOS 16 is Lockdown Mode, an extreme security measure designed for users who may fall victim to nation-states and other sophisticated attackers. Lockdown Mode reduces an iPhone's attack surface from sophisticated spyware and strictly limits access to apps, websites and phone features, such as the configuration profile. This setting prevents installing a new configuration profile or enrolling the device in another MDM system. Nothing stops businesses and government agencies from mandating their employees use this mode if their travels take them to certain parts of the world.
Common mobile device threats to a corporate iPhone
While Apple is typically swift in alerting users about threats against its devices and providing security updates, organizations still bear the full weight of their corporate mobile device security. IT teams should be aware of a few common threats and how to mitigate them.
CVEs and other iPhone vulnerabilities
Mobile OS vulnerabilities remain a common attack vector that organizations must account for in their MDM and security strategies. There are numerous documented Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVEs) in iOS that should concern cybersecurity teams. Some common iPhone threats do make headlines, such as the release of iOS 16.1 targeting one actively exploited zero-day attack and 19 other newly discovered vulnerabilities.
Note: All users should run the latest version of iOS by default, as set by MDM policies.
Mobile users can be especially susceptible to man-in-the-middle attacks because, while web traffic commonly uses encrypted HTTPS, some mobile apps might not use encryption. It's also easy for attackers to intercept text messages.
VPN security issues
Reports also warn of iPhone VPN security issues persisting in iOS 16. Researchers claim that traffic leaks even when enabling Apple's new Lockdown Mode.
Phishing remains a common attack vector and a primary driver of configuration profile attacks. This type of attack counts on recipients clicking on a malicious link or attachment to deliver malware. This is the main risk associated with configuration profiles: A malicious attacker could use phishing techniques to email a compromised configuration profile to an iPhone user and trick them into installing the file onto their device.
At one time, configuration profiles on Apple devices were seen as dangerous malware because of this possibility. However, configuration profiles are not inherently threatening to security -- iPhone configuration profiles are safe when created by IT and securely distributed to users. The only real threat is malicious configuration profiles, which attackers might distribute through phishing or another form of social engineering. As long as organizations implement the right data security measures and properly educate end users, iPhone configuration profiles are a safe and useful tool.