Mobile phones have now become the heart of our lives. Therefore, businesses nowadays take the mobile-first approach when developing applications since most mobile users spend 90% of their time on mobile applications. Accordingly, it has become ever more essential to consider mobile app security and ensure that user’s sensitive information stays safe.
Mobile apps often contend with private and sensitive user data such as banking information or personal health information. Getting hacked or Losing data can have enormous consequences. There is no bigger nightmare for any mobile app developer than recognizing that his mobile application was involved in a massive data leak and stolen user data.
Mobile app security breaches can potentially damage a whole system. Therefore it is vital to ensure mobile app security. Unfortunately, it is not simple to recognize a mobile app’s security threats and determine its security level. However, mobile app developers need to ensure that users are protected from external intrusions with a company’s status and users’ personal information at risk.
Here, we will discuss how mobile application security works and how you can safeguard your mobile applications. So, before we dig any further, let’s first discuss what mobile app security is?
What is Mobile App Security?
Mobile app security is a strategy to safeguard mobile apps from external threats such as malware and other digital scams that risk user’s personal and financial information from hackers. Mobile app security is equally essential as a great mobile app in this ever-evolving today’s digital world.
A breach in mobile app security can provide hackers access to the user’s personal life in real-time and reveal data like their banking information, personal information, current location, and much more.
However, we do not often consider safeguarding mobile apps until a breach into the app has already been made. Unfortunately, it may be too late to save all the personal information when this happens, so it’s best to think about security in advance.
Impact of Poor Mobile App Security
Users are dependent and trust businesses to test their mobile apps for security methods before making them accessible. Hackers can try to leverage any of the following things below to exploit security loopholes in mobile applications:
Hackers can acquire login credentials from any device or website, such as email, banking, social networking websites, etc. Anubis banking Trojan is a notorious example in this category, which arrives at the user’s device by downloading compromised applications, some of which are even hosted on the app stores.
Once a device is corrupted, the Trojan pushes it to send and receive SMSes, request authorization to access device location, read contact lists, permit push notifications, and determine the IP address of the mobile connection with admittance to personal data on the mobile device.
Hackers can gain debit and credit card information to make bank transactions, especially when a one-time password is unnecessary. Kaspersky researchers found a new version of the banking Trojan known as Ginp, which could steal user-sensitive credentials and credit card information from a user’s device. Its capability to take charge of the SMS feature of the device allows it to manipulate banking functions.
Hackers gain the code base of the app to create their clones illegally or steal the company’s intellectual property that possesses the application. Therefore, the more valuable or practical an app is, the more clones it is expected to attract to app stores.
For example, PUBG and Fortnite became popular and were not accessible on the Google Play store. Still, many clones soon became known because of their great popularity. At one point, Google had to inform its users that the official Fortnite was not obtainable at Google Play Store.
It is possible to access premium features of apps, especially in utility and gaming apps, which are a source of revenue for the app owners. For example, in 2016, the mobile app security company Bluebox publicized how hackers could access the premium features of popular apps Hulu and Tinder by exploiting security holes and causing losses to their owners.
Aside from losing critical user data, the loss can come from exploitations of user information and lawsuits from affected groups. Whereas the positive of undertaking security drills is that customers stay faithful and trust the brand, the negative is losing customers’ assurance forever.
Businesses should understand that the focus of their business lies in the confidence of their customers in their brand. Therefore, the basis for app development should consider this characteristic of a mobile development company.
Potential Loopholes in Mobile App Security
Mobile apps are not aimed to work as antiviruses or to transfer data securely over the internet. Instead, they emphasize a smooth interface and offer the best functionality to users. In the same way, installing an antivirus app may safeguard the network and avoid attacks on a device. Still, it cannot protect weak passwords or a poorly designed mobile application.
Android App Security Risks
Android apps are built in Java through an integrated development environment (IDE) like Eclipse. These Java apps can be reversed with several tools existing on the internet. With Android, the Bytecode can be transformed and packed again in the form of APK files.
Reversing Android apps can offer test login credentials, insights into bad design, details about the libraries and classes utilized. It can also provide information on the type of encryption used in the application, which can help the attacker hack multiple devices using the same decryption technique.
Insecure Platform Usage
Android apps become exposed to mobile app security risks when mobile app developers ignore the guidelines issued by Google to communicate with its mobile OS, mainly through unsecured Android intents and platform authorizations. For example, when the developer does not protect exported services or issues a false flag to an API call, their app stands exposed to hackers.
Hackers tend to spy on Android devices to obtain BroadcastReceiver instances that are destined for genuine apps. Unfortunately, developers tend to ignore using LocalBroadcastManager to send and receive messages for legitimate apps, thus creating a security gap.
Several Android app developers do not update their apps frequently or pay attention to the OS patches supplied by Android, which causes a lack of safety against newly found vulnerabilities. Updates cover the most recent security patches, and ignoring the same can expose apps to the newest security risks.
The Android OS allows users to root their devices with third-party apps with some warnings supplied to them. However, not every user recognizes that their rooted device exposes it to manipulation by hackers. Thus, it becomes essential for developers not to allow their mobile app to run in a rooted environment or issue regular warnings to users.
iOS App Security Risks
Unlike Android, Apple iOS strictly implements security features, and it is a closed operating system. Apps can not communicate with other apps or openly access the data or directories of other apps. iOS apps are built on native Objective C language with tools like Xcode. It is based on the same ARM version of the XNU kernel as OSX, used in Apple’s laptops and Mac computers.
Jailbreaking is a well-known term used in the context of iOS devices. It includes finding an exploit in the kernel that permits users to run unidentified code on mobile devices. Jailbreaking is tethered, which means that every time a user reboots their phone, they have to be connected to a laptop or run a jailbroken code. At the same time, an untethered jailbreak means that the code will persist on the phone even after a reboot.
iOS provides device-level security through Face ID and Touch ID and claims they are protected because they use a processor distinct from the other OS. It is known as the Secure Enclave, which runs on a dedicated microkernel.
However, hackers have revealed that Touch ID can be compromised, especially with a device named GrayKey, which makes brute-forcing the passcode predicting simple by doing away with the necessity to wait between attempts at guessing. Additionally, when iOS app developers use Touch ID systems to safeguard data or services within their apps, they are also exposed to this kind of vulnerability.
Unprotected Data Storage
Most apps store data in SQL databases, binary data stores, cookies, or ordinary text. These storage locations can be retrieved by hackers when the framework, operating system, or compiler is exposed. Also, jailbreaking devices result in data exposure. When hackers gain admittance to the database, they transform the app and gather the information on their machines.
Jailbroken devices expose even the most complex encryption algorithms. Security specialists have also found that unprotected data storage is one of the most common vulnerabilities in iOS devices, which hackers use to steal passwords, financial information, and personal data or users.
Common Application Risks
Lack of encryption
Encryption is a technique of transferring data into ciphered code that cannot be viewed without matching it with a secret key. As per the data by Symantec, almost 13.4% of consumer devices and 10.5% of enterprise devices do not have encryption allowed, which can simply expose sensitive data as plain text. Using high-level data encryption guarantees that the app cannot be easily cracked.
Malicious code injection
It is a common term where a hacker sets a binary file containing malicious code on a local file system in the mobile device and then executes it to gain access. It can be done with malicious SMS or by pushing the user to click on malicious links. This way, hackers can put malicious code even in legitimate folders or inside installer files and execute it, compromising device security.
Binary planting can cause reverse engineering, where attackers attempt to deconstruct the code of an app and can access the core code. Once the code is exposed, hackers can manipulate it to discover the vulnerabilities and exploit it for further malicious action.
They are a type of bots that run on IRC networks made with Trojans. When a compromised device connects to the internet, it works as a client and sends information to a server. Mobile botnets aim to gain complete control over the device and send emails and text messages, make phone calls, and access personal data.
Mobile App Security Best Practices
The mobile app security best practices ensure that the application is risk-free and not disclosing personal data or information. The mobile app developers must ensure that all security checks are executed before being uploaded to an app store for public utilization. Public-facing applications that are the only communication link between customers and the company are the prime objectives of hackers.
Most applications are designed considering that they have to be compatible with almost every device available on the market. However, this methodology makes the mobile application exposed to attacks and manipulation. Therefore, mobile app developers must keep up with the maximum stringent filter mechanisms while developing a mobile application to prevent possible attacks.
To minimize the specific warnings, mobile app developers can run a threat-modeling exercise. The most common risks that organizations that depend on mobile apps for leading their business encounter are as follows:
Applications with permeable firewalls are at continuous risk of being breached by hackers who can acquire confidential information, like payment credentials, system passwords, and PINs. Once the firewall is breached, malware can also be entered into the device.
Sharing resources, like a third-party API, may be needed to communicate between mobile apps and the company’s back-end services. If the procedure of API integration is not examined sensibly, it can compromise the user data that stays in the device and compromise the server-level security.
Any mobile application designed to perform financial transactions will always be under the radar of fraudsters. However, there is always a risk when the application utilizes sensitive data, such as payment credentials, PINs, and passwords associated with apps and credit cards. Hackers, equipped with several attack techniques, like SMS grabbing via malware, script injection, and repackaging, are always on the prowl.
Regulations and guidelines
Applications must operate within a legal and social framework, and breaching them can invite legal action. For example, the General Data Protection Regulation and the Revised Payment Services Directive are a few that are operating in European nations. Simultaneously, numerous other guidelines apply in the global context.
We need to consider whether the application is released in a retail store or distributed through the organization’s distribution channel. It is no secret that applications distributed via private carriers are less expected to encounter threats like reverse engineering. Like application management through UEM and stand-alone solutions, several mechanisms can keep the application safe and secure.
At present, there are three types of architectural options available for mobile application development – Native, hybrid, and web-based. All these have their pros and cons where one has to either compromise performance or security. For example, changing an organization’s web application to a mobile application is not a complex task, but encrypting the cached content of the application becomes a long and expensive issue.
If the cached content is decreased and rejected more often to enhance the security front, it could adversely affect mobile app performance. Therefore, these elements should be considered before taking the architectural call. Another point that mobile app developers need to consider is selecting device- or server-side checks. Hackers often are inclined to breach device security walls by tampering with the application or device.
A jailbroken device, for example, can ridicule native check mechanisms. The one-size-fits-all approach may not work in mobile application development. Some applications might require server-side controls, whereas, for others, device checks may work out better.
Native application development unlocks the door to all native security potential of the operating software platforms. In addition, they are inclined to work more efficiently since they depend on the API from the operating software. Both popular functional software, Android and iOS, already have best practices guidelines that developers can follow.
These native environments are competent in achieving both basic and advanced necessities. However, in the native development procedure, two exclusive versions of the applications need to be sustained. From simple functions, like validation and encryption, to complex like device verification and storage of credentials are supported by these native environments.
While for competitive applications native route seems perfect, but for others, hybrid architectures may be a more viable option. The hybrid architecture permits the usage of cross-platform frameworks like Xamarin and Flutter. Moreover, sensitive activities in hybrid applications can be carried out using native mobile app security tools.
Most principles of secure mobile app security architecture apply to mobile applications too. However, developers have certain vital areas to concentrate on to get the best results for mobile applications. Here are a few practices recommended by industry professionals:
Minimal Application Permissions
Permissions offer applications the liberty and power to function more efficiently. But, simultaneously, they make apps vulnerable to hackers’ attacks. No application should look for authorization requests beyond its functional area. Mobile app developers should avoid recycling their present libraries but create new ones that seek permission.
Safeguarding sensitive information
Confidential personal data stored within the application without an appropriate safeguarding mechanism in place is disposed to attacks. In addition, miscreants can extract critical data by reverse-engineering codes. Therefore, if possible, the amount of data stored on the device should be censored to minimize the risk.
Certificate pinning is a procedure that helps applications safeguard against attacks while connected to unsecured networks. The process, however, has its limitations. For example, it may not support network detection and response tools in a few cases as traffic inspection is more complex.
There are compatibility issues that can occur too. For example, specific browsers do not aid certificate pinning, making life more challenging for hybrid applications to function.
Boost Data Security
Data security policy and guidelines should be recognized to ensure users can avoid getting caught in the trick of hackers. For example, consisting of well-implemented data encryption when the information is transmitted between devices and using firewalls, and mobile app security tools whenever required. You can refer to the guidelines laid down for iOS and Android development platforms.
Developers quite often depend on using APIs as they make their job simpler. However, APIs can be vulnerable to external breaches as well. Therefore, it is recommended that APIs are authorized centrally for maximum security. APIs that aren’t certified and are insecurely coded can inadvertently grant hacker privileges. For maximum security, ensure that your APIs are authorized centrally.
Not Saving Passwords
Many apps request users to save passwords to avoid them from repeatedly entering the login credentials. However, in mobile theft, these passwords can be collected to gain access to personal information. Similarly, if the password is saved in an unencrypted format, their harvest chances are very high.
To avoid this from happening, mobile app developers should refrain from saving passwords on devices. As an alternative, they should be stored on the app server so that the affected users can change them by logging on to the server even though the mobile device is lost.
Implement Session Logout
It is often realized that users forget to log out from the website or application they have been using. If it is a banking app or any other payment app, this can be pretty risky. Hence, payment apps are inclined to end a user’s session after a specific period of inactivity.
Consequently, developers must implement a session logout on all consumer-centric and eCommerce apps, even if they expect their users to be highly knowledgeable.
Refer to Security Experts
No matter how experienced and knowledgeable an in-house security team is, an external opinion on the apps can give a different perspective. Several mobile app development companies and apps can be deployed to recognize the loopholes and reduce the probabilities of getting compromised.
In addition, mobile app development companies should inspire their development teams to evaluate their apps’ security features evaluated by third-party service providers.
Apply Multi-Factor Authentication
Multi-Factor Authentication enhances an additional security layer when a user logs into an application. However, the multi-factor authentication technique is also obscure for weak passwords, which hackers can predict and compromise app security.
The multi-factor authentication offers a secret code that must be entered and the password to log into a device or application. This secret code is either sent through SMS, email, Google Authenticator, or biometric techniques. Not implementing multi-factor authentication on the app can permit hackers to predict weak passwords.
Authentication refers to the utilization of passwords and other personal identifiers. Interestingly, some of the major security breaches occur because of weak authentication. Therefore, it is vital to use strong authentication for maximum protection of your mobile phone and apps.
When it comes to mobile app security best practices, you can use several techniques to ensure mobile app security, such as:
A) Dual-factor authentication;
B) Latest authentication techniques, such as retina or fingerprint scanning.
- Penetration Testing
Penetration testing is done to check vulnerabilities in an application. This mobile app security testing aims to find potential flaws that an attacker might use and compromise the application’s security. It includes checking weak password policy, third-party apps permissions, unencrypted data, no password expiry protocol, etc.
By restructuring the acts of a potential hacker, the security team defines any weakness in the mobile app design. It is recommended that penetration mobile application testing is executed regularly to keep the app protected. White box testing and black box testing are other types of mobile app security testing tools that can be undertaken to check for security issues.
Avoid Using Personal Devices
To avoid the overhead cost of buying systems, many companies ask their employees to bring their laptops or smart devices for mobile application development. But, unfortunately, it may open the network to many infections that may have been collected on an employee’s device.
In this way, Malware and Trojans travel from one device to another. Therefore, it is vital to have a mobile app security checklist and policy to avoid such practices. For example, each device connecting to an office network should be scanned comprehensively with a firewall, antivirus, and anti-spam software or should not be permitted to communicate at all.
Use Third-Party Libraries with Caution
Using third-party libraries may decrease the amount of coding done by the developer and ease the mobile application development process. But, it can be a risky proposition. For example, the GNU C library had a security flaw that allowed buffer overflow, which hackers could exploit to execute a malicious code and crash a device remotely.
It persisted for eight years before the open-source community contributing to the GNU Project released a fix in 2016. Therefore, app developers should limit the use of libraries and create library management policies to protect apps from attacks.
Limit User Privileges
The more privileges a user is given, the more probabilities of getting the app security made vulnerable. For example, if the user with a high number of privileges is hacked, hackers can do an inconceivable level of damage to the application. Similarly, an app should also not ask for privileges on a device for functions it does not need – for example, privileges to read SMS, DCIM folder, etc.
Use The Principle Of Least Privilege
If you’re not aware of the principle of least privilege, it’s a mobile app security standard or principle that dictates that a code should run with only the permissions it requires. This principle is also appropriate to every aspect of the IT industry, including the end-user, systems, procedures, networks, applications, and many more.
For example, it means that an app shouldn’t need admittance to all the photos in your library or your contacts, nor should it make needless network connections.
Use The Best Cryptography Tools And Techniques
Due to the rapid development of technology, some famous cryptographic algorithms are no longer as effective as they used to be. It means that you should always stay informed on modern cryptography mobile app testing tools and techniques. Furthermore, to the extent that cryptography goes, you should store keys in secure containers and never store them locally on the device to ensure the safety of mobile applications.
Sessions on mobile devices last much longer compared to desktops, which increases the server load. Using tokens rather than device identifiers to make a session is a more safe option. These tokens can be revoked if necessary and are more secure in the event of loss or theft of the device. Developers should also consider session expiration as a preference. Allowing remote data wiping for lost and stolen devices is also a good safety option to keep in the application.
Set up Tamper-Detection Technologies
If hackers can access your code, they can change it or tamper it in diverse ways to gain personal data. However, there are some mobile app security solutions to combat such practices. For example, active tamper recognition can ensure that the code will not function at all if changed. Developers use these techniques to inform when someone tries to change their code or add malicious code.
Run The Best Encryption Tools And Techniques
In basic terms, encryption means that even though data is stolen, there’s nothing hackers can read and mistreat. Due to this, you must make sure that every part of the data in your code is encrypted. Even big organizations, such as the FBI, have trouble getting past encrypted data, so hackers will undoubtedly have a difficult time too.
Write A Secure Code
The simplest way to ensure mobile apps security is to write dependable code to help you safeguard your app from attackers. Attackers will try to tamper your code and reverse engineer it, so ensure it is obscured and minified. Constantly mobile app security testing and fixing bugs is also crucial to have a security code. If your code does happen to get breached, ensure that it is responsive to update it easily.
Manage Keys Securely
Key management is vital for encryption. Hard coding keys are unsafe to the app’s security and should be prevented by developers. If someone steals the key, they can quickly gain control of the device. Therefore, keys should be kept in a safe container and not on the user’s device.
Some of the commonly used cryptographic protocols for this purpose are MD5 hash and SHA1. In addition, developers should use modern encryption and mobile app security standards and APIs, like 256-bit encryption with SHA-256 hashing.
Test Apps Periodically
Safeguarding a mobile app is not a one-time procedure. New mobile app security threats arise each day, and updates to patch these threats are necessary before they can initiate any harm to the user’s device. Breaches such as the spread of ransomware WannaCry and NotPetya, which encrypted users’ Windows devices and demanded a ransom in Bitcoins, in 2016 and 2017 caused enough alarm in the developer community to take cybersecurity seriously.
However, this ransomware primarily affected desktops. The swiftness and effectiveness of their spread show the need for periodic mobile app security testing of apps, as new mobile app security threats are always imminent.
Ensure HTTPS Communication
It stands for Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure and is compared with HTTP communication. HTTPS provides data security when it is transmitted over a network. The communication protocol is encrypted using Transport Layer Security (TLS). TLS and Secure Socket Layer (SSL) are cryptographic protocols that guarantee data privacy over several communication channels.
Alternatively, HTTP data is unencrypted, invalidated, and unverified, allowing hackers to spy on user content. Developers must ensure a valid SSL certificate on the server to which the app is connected and send data between the app and the server using the HTTPS protocol.
A cache is software that saves the data temporarily on the user’s device, which is used to avoid data retrieval delay. If it is not encrypted, hackers can access data stored in the cache. The app does not eliminate its data after a session ends, and the cache does not expire. If these cache files get into the wrong hands, they can manipulate them to access the server’s user data.
Apply RASP Security
It stands for runtime application self-protection, protecting an app against runtime attacks by providing more visibility into hidden vulnerabilities. Security software incorporates the app or its runtime environment and continuously interrupts calls made to the app from possible attackers.
The RASP layer proactively examines the incoming traffic and stops fraudulent calls from executing inside the app. All incoming requests are explored through the RASP layer sitting between the application and the server.
One of the best approaches to safeguard an app from hackers is to employ code obfuscation techniques. It is an act of creating a code that is tough for hackers to understand. This technique has become prevalent and is used to obscure code from attacks. Obfuscators are used to automatically transform programming code into a format that individuals cannot understand. Code obfuscation consists of:
- Encrypting some or the complete code
- Eliminating metadata that may disclose information about the libraries or APIs used
- Renaming classes and variables so they cannot be predicted
The code is obscured to prevent data and property hackers who could crack the code using the software. In Apple’s iOS, this technique is not so common as its libraries are secure. Alternatively, Android has open-source libraries. Hence, Android developers need to obfuscate code.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
How Does Mobile App Security Work?
Mobile application security emphasizes the software security posture of mobile apps on different platforms such as iOS, Android, and Windows Phone. These applications have access to vast amounts of user data, which is confidential and safeguarded from unauthorized access.
What Is Mobile App Security Testing?
Testing the mobile application on the criteria of their functionality, usability, security, performance, etc., is known as Mobile Application Testing. Mobile Application Security Testing involves authentication, authorization, data security, vulnerabilities for hacking, session management, etc.
What Connection Method On Mobile Devices Is Safe?
USB is comparatively more secure than some wireless protocols because you need physical access to the device to plug in that USB connection. A locked device is also relatively safe because most devices will not permit communication over USB unless the device is unlocked.
Why Is Mobile Security Important?
Mobile security protects portable devices such as laptops, tablets, smartwatches, and phones against cyber threats. At present, the requirement for protection is more crucial because we store a lot of sensitive or confidential data on these devices.
People will continue to depend on their mobile phones more and more. With all of their features and functionalities, they are a crucial part of our lives, so it is essential that we treat mobile application security and thereby our data with the maximum attention. Understanding the potential risks and learning the proper mobile app security techniques to protect your phone are vital in safeguarding mobile application protection.
In addition, secure coding practices, continuous testing, and a focus on positive user experiences boost security. Building reliable mobile apps is tough, but there are various ways to strengthen your apps against attackers. Protecting user data must be a high priority and should never be overlooked.
Applying the mobile app security best practices mentioned above and avoiding common security risks creates safer applications. However, even if you implement all these best practices in your app, this doesn’t mean that your app is entirely bullet-proof. One simple mistake can break your entire security concept.