MicroStrategy’s office of the future includes mobile identity and cybersecurity

When employees pull into the parking garage at MicroStrategy’s Tysons Corner headquarters, they can raise the gate with the swipe of a smartphone app. They can also summon the elevator, glide past security, unlock an office door or log onto a computer — all with a tap of the same app.

At MicroStrategy, this is the Office of the Future. It’s a workplace where everything from entering the building to giving sales presentations to assessing business analytics heavily relies on the use of mobile devices and software.

The company’s latest creation, called Usher, replaces an employee’s photo badge and computer username and password with an app that verifies his or her identity and grants access to the building or network when appropriate.

The number of mobile applications designed specifically for the office has exploded in recent years as smartphones and tablets become staples of doing business. Mobile identification is merely the latest invention.

But technology for the sake of technology rarely compels companies to buy new software. It’s got to add value to the business.

“The question is mobile identity never existed before, so why is it a market now?” said Mark LaRow, senior vice president of products. “To be honest, we kind of worked our way backward into this in the sense that we kept discovering more things that identity on a mobile device could do.”

MicroStrategy isn’t the only company working its way into the market. Companies are creating similar technology to identify customers at banks or recipients of government services, and to facilitate payments using mobile phones.

“Mobile devices are practically ubiquitous therefore they serve as a perfect token for authenticating a user,” Michela Menting, a cybersecurity analyst at ABI Research, said via e-mail.

But smartphones also come with their own security risks — What happens when the device is lost or, worse, stolen? And as the line between personal and professional information blurs on mobile devices, people want assurance their identity is safe.

“The main barrier is really trust in the technology,” Menting said.

HOW IT WORKS

MicroStrategy’s Usher acts like a mobile wallet. It can hold digital versions of I.D.s, such as an employee badge, and keys that unlock doors with the tap of a finger.

The app also uses a variety of security mechanisms beyond a simple photograph to verify a user’s identity, such as voice recognition software and four-digit codes that are unique to each employee.

MicroStrategy sees applications for Usher beyond the office. Banks could use the app to identify online banking customers, for example. Governments could use the app to create mobile versions of driver’s licenses and other identification documents.

“Ultimately enterprises are going to adopt software like Usher because it’s slightly more convenient than the physical things it’s replaced, but more importantly, it’s far more secure on the cybersecurity side,” LaRow said.

Indeed, the biggest selling feature is the ability to eliminate the usernames and passwords that most workers use when they log into their computer terminals each morning, LaRow said. Instead, Usher transmits an employee’s identification information to the computer network.

Nitesh Dhanjani, executive director in the Information Security Center of Excellence at Ernst & Young, said mobile identification offers greater security in the sense users must both prove their identity and that they’re physically present.

A password can be stolen and used to access the computer network remotely, Dhanjani said.

But phones can be stolen, too. Or lost. While devices can be password protected or stripped of their data remotely, Dhanjani said a missing phone presents the biggest security risk.

“Given the fact that mobile devices are smaller and people are moving around with them, that’s the No. 1 threat case,” Dhanjani said. “That’s where the privacy as well as the security issues really lie.”

But even when a phone is in an employee’s hand, his or her personal information often exists elsewhere. That raises questions about who controls the data — the employee? employer? app maker? — and who can easily get their hands on it.

“Users feel that so many parties having access to part or all of their identification data may lead to higher instances of breach,” Menting said. “If the user feels that privacy and data protection mechanisms are in place, then trust can be established and adoption of services should be easier.”

A PILOT PROGRAM

Outside of MicroStrategy’s headquarters, the inaugural trial of Usher is underway at 1776, a start-up hub in the District where the office is always aflutter with entrepreneurs, investors, business mentors and scores of visitors.

With 75 start-ups working out of the venue and regular events that attract upward of 1,000 people, co-creator Evan Burfield said Usher allows them to grant temporary access to the building and keep track of who is there.

“We needed a solution that made it as simple to give someone physical access to the space — even if just for an hour’s visit or an event — as it is to send a meeting invite,” he said.

Most of the upstarts moved in last week, Burfield said, meaning Usher has only been in operation for a few days. Thus, it’s too early to tell whether the software brings added convenience or security as executives promise.

“But one of our concerns with more traditional solutions is that if we make security too difficult, then our rather creative members will simply circumvent it,” he said in an e-mail. “Usher offers us robust security and data tracking (who entered when) in a really easy-to-use package.”

Andy O’Brien, a senior vice president at Jones Lang LaSalle, introduced the 1776 creators to Usher. The company brokers commercial real estate deals across the country, and O’Brien expects the software could help analyze occupancy rates and habits.

“If it can work with a heavy user like a 1776 then I see it working a lot easier for a traditional office user that doesn’t have that kind of foot traffic,” O’Brien said. “I think it’s a great pilot to show that functionality on a really heavy-use case.”

“As far as a large-scale [implementation], I can’t really comment at this time. I have no doubt that it will work at 1776. What they’ve put together has all the functionality that a co-working space would need,” O’Brien added.

Steven Overly covers the business of technology, biotechnology and venture capital in the Washington region for The Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication. In that capacity, he has written about start-up struggles, investment trends and major drug discoveries.
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