New technology means new opportunity, but it also means new security risk. With each step forward, app developers have to be aware of potential security threats.
Mobile applications have their own, unique security concerns. These range from the unique digital environments on mobile devices to the complex threat vectors faced by today’s busy networks. These risks can be mitigated through threat modeling, penetration testing, and using mobile app security best practices.
Let’s dive into the world of enterprise mobile application security.
What is Mobile Application Security?
Enterprise mobile application security is a process that dev teams work through to make sure that the end-user can safely use the application without worrying about their data being breached. Security threats like malware and SQL injection use exploits in mobile application security to gain everything from private information to control over personal finances.
This is why mobile application security testing is so important. A mobile application exploit can quickly lead to serious financial and personal trouble for an end-user. It can also spell doom for a brand that now has security flaws as part of their reputation.
Let’s start our exploration of mobile application security with the five biggest threats.
The Basic Mobile Application Security Threat Vectors
The first step in understanding mobile application security is recognizing five of the most common threat vectors.
Code and Anti-Reversing
We’re starting with the most controversial area of mobile application security practices.
Code obfuscation, also known as anti-reversing, makes it difficult for hackers to reverse engineer your code. It looks something like this: Instead of naming variables with easily readable phrases like “ContainerIsEmpty,” they are given encrypted and scrambled text that only the dev team has access to. In this case, “ContainerIsEmpty” would become “As3D6sdJ” or something along those lines.
Of course, an enterprising hacker can still reverse engineer the code, but this works the same way a bike lock does. Bike locks don’t stop thieves. If someone really wants your bike, they’re going to bring bolt cutters. However, a good bike lock will deter the majority of thieves who are just opportunists looking for easy gains.
What makes anti-reversing one of the most controversial mobile application security tools?
Code obfuscation makes your code essentially impossible to read unless you’re in the initial dev team. This can make it incredibly difficult for later teams to work on your application. There are also larger, ethical issues around making code inaccessible in age where so much of today’s technology is built on Open Access concepts.
The Quality of Your Code
There are a lot of important differences between how we code apps on mobile devices and how we code traditional software. The types of vulnerabilities that apps are open to are just completely different from those that can hit traditional software.
Most apps are only interacting with the backend in the user interface. This limits the amount of attack vectors that a hacker would have to exploit. Typical exploits like code injection, memory management, and buffer overflow exploitations are less common risks for mobile applications. However, this doesn’t mean you can be sloppy with your coding.
Cleaner coding, whether anti-reversed or not, limits the potential exploits across the entire surface of your software. Sloppy coding offers would-be hackers more opportunities to explore when it comes to exploiting software. Cleaner coding is simply more secure and leaves fewer vulnerabilities at the end of a project.
Working With The Cloud
One of the biggest shifts we’ve seen over the last few years is the move from locally stored data to cloud data management. More apps, as well as the operating systems themselves, are beginning to incorporate cloud features on every level of their front and back-ends. This means that threats have only grown more complex.
Cloud services offer users convenience, but it does make the work of creating secure apps more challenging for dev teams. Now attacks can be aimed not just at the data on a user’s device, but also their data on the cloud. Threat vectors emerge not only inside of applications themselves, but also on the networks that connect the cloud to a user’s device.
Insecure interfaces, data management vulnerabilities, and a variety of other threats can open up vulnerabilities in the link between apps and cloud management. Even if your app is not connected with cloud services, there’s a good chance that the other apps on your customer’s device are.
To Authenticate and Authorize
The topic of authentication and authorization could easily be its own article. There’s a lot to say about passwords, password storage, and making sure the user data stays safe inside of your app and when your app is communicating with the servers.
On a basic level, your dev team needs to keep in mind that this all comes down to a balance between usability and security. Today, most apps use session tokens to store long-term data that helps users login quicker. There are also external protocols, such as OAuth2, that can manage logins and passwords for users.
Your dev team needs to weigh the security of the data that your app will be holding with the end-user experience that you’re trying to create. There are no quick answers with authentication and authorization.
Network and Server Communications Within the App
Here’s a fun fact about information security in the digital age. The only way to hack a computer that’s not connected to a network is to have physical access to the device. Once you plug a computer into the internet, it becomes vulnerable to a wider range of potential exploits.
Since you can’t have your app disconnected from the internet, this means that you’re going to need to take extra precautions to make sure it’s safe from potential exploits. The most basic form of this type of security is an encrypted network. A protocol like a people configured TLS can make sure your app’s network activity isn’t being manipulated by a hacker.
Making sure your app has secure communication end points is one of, if not the, most important things you can do to ensure your security.
Local data storage is one of the biggest risks when it comes to creating a secure mobile application. There’s just a countless variety of different devices, individuals running outdated operating systems, and hundreds of thousands of applications that are loading their own data that create a complex environment for developing secure applications.
One of the most secure things you can do is to use only the latest API When developing your app. This will limit your application to only be compatible with the latest editions of each mobile OS, but there really is no beating the security that comes with staying up-to-date with the latest API.
There are more security risks to local data than just outdated mobile operating systems. You also need to consider potential factors for data leaks. This grows more important as the information your application handles becomes more sensitive.
Applications can leak information to the cloud, to the other applications on the device, or just to the local storage. This can become a gold mine for hackers. Dev teams need to be aware that their applications could become hosts for a variety of data management exploits.
Now that we are up to speed on some of the biggest threat vectors or for mobile application security, how do we prevent and mitigate these risks?
A Quick Introduction to Mobile Application Security Testing
Now we know the threats, we can look at the mobile application security tools that can fight them. Enterprise mobile application security is built on these three fundamentals.
Mobile Application Security Assessment
The first and most important tool is mobile application security assessment.
In the world of information security, this is called threat modeling. This is where you consider the potential risks that your app faces and build your security response from there. This is often done with a professional team that has the insider experience and knowledge that your software engineers need to build a safe and secure application.
Each app has its own unique suite of risks. An application designed to transfer money, such as Venmo, is going to have a much higher security risk level than an application that puts cat stickers on pictures. However, even the most basic and playful apps still require threat modeling to ensure that they’re not exposing their end-users to serious risks.
Penetration testing, or pentesting for short, is the process of having mobile security experts test your application for potential exploits.
Individuals who do penetration testing can also be called white hat hackers. These are professional information security experts and software engineers who are hired by companies to look for exploits in their software.
The process will start with these individuals discussing the scope of their assignment with your team. They will then conduct penetration testing on your application and the devices it will run on. This testing searches for exploits in your software and then identifies them.
Penetration testing typically ends with a report given to the dev team. Your team can use this report to tighten up their security and eliminate these potential security risks.
The Human Element
Here’s the most difficult area of enterprise mobile application security to get ahead of.
Part of your mobile application security comes down to how your business functions. You should work toward building a workplace that uses the best information security practices. This starts with the basics like not writing down passwords, ensuring work devices stay updated, and issuing employees dedicated devices for work-only use.
What’s Next for Enterprise Mobile Application Security?
The world of mobile application security is a rapidly changing one. Now that you know the basics of building a secure app, what’s next for your team?