Mobile application security explained

Exploring risks and top tools for mobile app security

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What is mobile application security?

Mobile app security, much like traditional application security, aims to mitigate the risks of cyberattacks with security tools and techniques. Mobile security focuses on multiple operating systems (mainly Android and iOS) and numerous devices (including smartphones and tablets).

While the mobile platforms and ecosystems provide security capabilities, these mainly benefit the end-user. Mobile app developers, on the other hand, need to implement strong mobile application security themselves.

The importance of mobile application security

As more consumers shift to mobile apps for banking, ecommerce, gaming, and more, mobile application security has become even more critical for mobile development teams and app publishers. The pandemic has accelerated how much consumers are using digital and mobile alternatives day-to-day, meaning these apps store a large amount of sensitive user data, including GPS locations, financial transactions, and personally identifiable information (PII).

In addition, many enterprises increasingly rely on mobile applications to collaborate and communicate with employees and customers. Now more than ever, mobile apps have access to a large amount of sensitive information that needs to be protected using comprehensive mobile application security.

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What are the top risks for mobile application security?

The Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP) is a nonprofit foundation that promotes application security by publishing resources, education, and training. The OWASP mobile top 10 are the most common security risks the foundation has identified for mobile apps. These risks include:

  1. Improper Platform Usage: Using mobile platform features incorrectly or failing to use the security controls that the platform provides.

  2. Insecure Data Storage: Failing to encrypt sensitive data, enabling malicious actors to access the data by obtaining lost/stolen devices or through malware.

  3. Insecure Communication: The risk that malicious actors can intercept sensitive data that hasn’t been encrypted when it’s being transmitted across public networks.

  4. Insecure Authentication: Vulnerabilities with identity management systems, allowing malicious actors to fake or bypass authentication to access private data or features.

  5. Insufficient Cryptography: Improperly or inadequately implementing encryption to protect passwords, private keys, application code, and other sensitive information.

  6. Insecure Authorization: Issues with permission controls, enabling malicious actors to access functionality intended for administrators or other users with greater access rights.

  7. Client Code Quality: Poor coding practices that allow external users to pass untrusted (and potentially malicious) code as inputs that the app executes.

  8. Code Tampering: Failure to detect changes to the code, resources, or API calls by malicious actors that modify the behavior of the application.

  9. Reverse Engineering: A lack of code obfuscation preventing malicious actors from recreating the source code, understanding the inner workings of the app, and staging attacks.

  10. Extraneous Functionality: Leaving hidden features or unnecessary code within the application package that malicious actors can potentially discover and exploit.

While the specific mobile attack may vary depending on the mobile devices and operating systems, these OWASP risks are relevant to both iOS and Android. That means delivering secure mobile apps on these platforms requires strong Swift security and Kotlin security.

Recent analysis has shown that many of the top apps in the Google Play store are lacking adequate Android security. For example, Android Intents can be used for communication between two apps, but malicious actors can also exploit vulnerabilities within them.

Potential attacks include injecting malicious Intent parameters (client code quality) or redirecting Intents (code tampering).

What is mobile application security testing (MAST)?

Mobile application security testing (MAST) is a type of application security testing that focuses on mobile apps. A comprehensive MAST strategy combines static analysis, dynamic analysis, and penetration testing to effectively assess risk areas of the mobile app.

Automated MAST solutions can scan application code for potential vulnerabilities, which enables development teams to mitigate security risks before they publish their mobile apps. This early detection is why MAST is considered one of the most important mobile app security best practices.

Top six tools for mobile application security

1. Zed Attack Proxy

OWASP Zed Attack Proxy (ZAP) is a popular open source tool for penetration testing and app scanning. ZAP is mainly used for web applications, but can also be configured to test mobile apps as well.

2. Android Debug Bridge

The Android Debug Bridge (ADB), provided for free as part of the Android SDK, is a CLI tool for detecting bugs and security issues. Using ADB, developers can perform tests on an Android app that’s running on either an emulator or a real device.

3. Snyk Code

Snyk Code is a static application security scanning (SAST) solution that can scan Swift code and Objective-C for vulnerabilities. These are the two primary languages used to build iOS applications. Snyk Code can also scan Android apps built using Java.

If you want to improve your mobile app security, consider implementing Snyk Code to find and fix vulnerabilities during the mobile development process. By shifting security scanning earlier, development teams can dramatically improve app security.

4. Quick Android Review Kit

The Quick Android Review Kit (QARK) is an open source tool for analyzing the source code and package of an app to identify vulnerabilities. QARK can also take these hypothetical vulnerabilities and turn them into proof of concept exploits.

5. Mobile Security Framework

The Mobile Security Framework (MobSF) is an automated security testing framework for pentesting, malware analysis, and both static and dynamic analysis. MobSF can analyze the binaries and source code of Android, iOS, and Windows mobile apps.

6. Android Tamer

Android Tamer is a platform for performing malware analysis, penetration testing, and reverse engineering against Android applications. This tool enables security teams and developers to identify potential risk areas of their Android app by attempting exploits.

Mobile app security FAQs

What is a mobile application attack?

A mobile application attack is an attempt by malicious actors to exploit any vulnerabilities they discover by reverse engineering or tampering with a mobile app. The outcome of a mobile app attack could include the theft of intellectual property, illegal redistribution of the app, data leakage, and reputational damage. Scanning for vulnerabilities and implementing application hardening measures are ways to mitigate the risks of a mobile app attack.

What methods can be used to secure a mobile application?

There are a variety of methods that can be used to secure mobile applications, including implementing secure authentication and access controls, encrypting sensitive data, regularly testing for vulnerabilities, and using secure coding practices. It is also important to regularly update the app and its security features to protect against new threats.

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