Mobile App Security Threats and Ways to Mitigate Them
The future is mobile.
Not long ago, this resonated across the global business landscape as mobile users skyrocketed and the mobile industry stakeholders grew unprecedented.
However, this great handheld innovation turned out to be a breeding ground for cyber attacks.
With recent security breaches like the ParkMobile incident that exposed 21 million customer records or the infamous T-Mobile SIM swap attacks, mobile app security is becoming the inevitable need of the hour.
Organizations worldwide perform much of their business processes – including confidential business – from their cell phones. This means a comprehensive mobile app security checklist is a must, and skipping mobile app security in your business plan is nothing short of poison!
With mobile app risks soaring, organizations need to focus on mobile app security to prevent threat actors from spying on their confidential or sensitive data.
What is mobile app security?
Mobile app security refers to securing mobile apps from external threats like digital frauds and malware. It focuses on mobile apps running on various platforms, such as Android, iOS, and Windows.
As the apps have access to tons of confidential data, any breach that could compromise the data through unauthorized access and use must be avoided.
Seventy-one percent of fraud transactions come from mobile apps and browsers. Additionally, one out of every 36 mobile devices has high-risk apps installed.
Most of these attacks stem from common vulnerabilities in mobile apps and can bring your business down to its knees. Let’s look at some of these common vulnerabilities.
Common mobile app security threats
A mobile app is the easiest entry point for a threat attack. It’s only sensible to learn more about the security threats common in mobile apps so that you’re aware and take appropriate action to keep them safe.
Weak server-side controls
Most mobile apps have a client-server architecture, with the app stores like Google Play being the client. End-users interact with these clients to make purchases and view messages, alerts, and notifications.
The server component is on the developer side and interacts with the mobile device via an API through the internet. This server part is responsible for the correct execution of app functions.
Forty percent of the server components have a below-average security posture, and 35% have extremely dangerous vulnerabilities, including:
- Code vulnerabilities
- Configuration flaws
- App code vulnerabilities
- Erroneous implementation of security mechanisms
Insecure data storage
Unreliable data storage is one of the most significant app vulnerabilities, as it leads to data theft and severe financial challenges. Forty-three percent of organizations often overlook mobile app security in the race of launching their apps.
This number gets scary when you consider critical apps, such as mobile banking, shopping, and trading, where you store confidential accounting details. Secure storage and data encryption facilitate data protection, but you must understand that not all encryption methods are equally effective or universally applicable.
Insufficient Transport Layer Protection (TLS)
While the mobile app exchanges data in the client-server architecture, the data traverses the carrier network of the mobile device and the internet. Threat agents can also exploit the vulnerabilities during this traversal and cause malware attacks, exposing the confidential information stored over the WiFi or local network.
This flaw exposes end users’ data, leading to account theft, site exposure, phishing, and man-in-the-middle attacks. Businesses can face privacy violation charges and incur fraud, identity theft, and reputational damage.
You can easily tackle this vulnerability with a trusted CA certificate provider, SSL/TLS security on the transport layer, and solid cipher suites.
Most of the vulnerabilities exist in the client, and a fair share of them are high risk for mobile app security. These vulnerabilities are diverse and can lead to authentication problems and software infections.
Most apps authenticate the users on the client side. This means that the data is stored on an unsafe smartphone. You can consider storing and authenticating app data on the server-side and transmitting it as a hash value to verify the integrity of data sent over insecure channels.
Malware is another common vulnerability in new mobile devices, making it critical to take quality protection measures right from the start.
While a lack of proper security measures for a mobile app is a vulnerability, improper configuration or implementation is also fatal to the app’s security posture. When you fail to implement all the security controls for the app or server, it becomes vulnerable to attackers and puts your business at risk.
The risk is magnified in the hybrid cloud environment, in which the entire organization is spread over different infrastructures. Loose firewall policies, app permissions, and failure to implement proper authentication and validation checks can cause huge ramifications.
Inadequate logging and monitoring
Logs and audit trails give your company insight into all network activities and enable it to easily troubleshoot errors, identify incidents, and track events. They’re also helpful in complying with regulatory requirements.
Improper or inadequate logging and monitoring creates information gaps and hampers your ability to thwart and respond to a security incident.
Proper log management and audit trails minimize average data breach detection and containment time. They enable faster breach detection and mitigation measures and, in turn, save your time, reputation, and money.
Sensitive data exposure
Sensitive data exposure is another common vulnerability in mobile apps. It occurs when a mobile app, developer company, or similar stakeholder entity accidentally exposes personal data. Data exposure is different from a data breach, where an attacker accesses and steals user information.
Common examples of data susceptible to exposure include:
- Bank account number
- Credit card number
- Session token
- Social security number (SSN)
- Healthcare data
Data exposure results from several factors. Some of these factors are inadequate data protection policies, missing data encryption, improper encryption, software flaws, or improper data handling.
Impact of weak mobile app security
Weak app security can have a variety of long-term and short-term effects on your business. The short-term effects are:
- Bad reputation
- Financial ramifications from loss of reputation
- A sudden drop in customers
The long-term effects are more consequential than the short-term. Once an attacker finds the vulnerabilities in your app security, they can leverage these vulnerabilities in various ways. For example, using ports for unauthorized communication, data theft, information sniffing, and man-in-the-middle attacks.
While it’s easier to overcome the repetitive and rare security failures, they hit your brand equity beyond recovery, and you may not have any chance of recovery.
Loss of customer information
If hackers gain access to customer information such as login data or account credentials, your business can face serious consequences, from customer churn to business loss.
Hackers can get control of credit or debit card numbers and tamper with bank transactions, especially when one-time password (OTP) authentication isn’t mandatory. If you’re a finance or banking company, such attacks can destroy your business.
The attackers can also exploit the vulnerabilities to access premium features without actually paying for them. Therefore, you must ensure mobile app security at all steps and protect your business data.
You can lose customer trust due to poor app security. Businesses suffer irreparable loss when their customers leave them because of a security incident, as they’re almost unlikely to return to them for business. This, in turn, affects their brand image and takes a heavy toll on brand confidence.
Compliance and regulatory issues
Most app compliance certificates and regulatory documents come with proper security guidelines and must-haves. If your mobile app falls short of these compliances, or you lose your data or fall prey to an attack because of app vulnerabilities, you’re in for mammoth lawsuits that’ll dry up your business.
How mobile app security works
Mobile app security shields you from key threat actors and provides an additional layer of security for your mobile apps.
There are four main targets for attackers:
- Credentials (device and external services)
- Personal data (name, SSN, address, and location)
- Cardholder data (card number, CVV, and expiry date)
- Access to a device (connection sniffing, botnets, spamming, stealing trade secrets, and so on)
There are also three major threat points that attackers exploit:
- Data storage options such as Keystore, configuration files, cache, app database, and app file system
- Binary methods such as reverse engineering, code vulnerabilities, embedded credentials, and key generation algorithms
- Platforms such as function hooking, mobile botnets, malware installation, and app architecture decisions
Mobile app security is a holistic and integrated entity that protects all of these targets and threat points from attackers. All threat points are interconnected, and weakness in even one of them can stimulate exploitation.
You should always know what to choose to secure your apps and devices. Having a reliable and robust security provider covering you on all fronts is key to protecting your business from attacks and cybercrime. But what are these security providers doing to protect the apps?
Enter app security testing.
Mobile app security testing involves testing your mobile app for security robustness and vulnerabilities, including testing the app as an attacker or hacker.
Some of the mobile app security testing procedures are:
- Static analysis: Testing and checking the security vulnerabilities without running the code or app
- Dynamic analysis: Working with the app in real time and testing its behavior as an end-user
- Penetration testing: Testing vulnerabilities, such as network, server, web apps, mobile devices, and other endpoints
- Hybrid testing: Combining two or more testing procedures
Performing a thorough mobile app security test ensures that you understand the app’s behavior and how it stores, transmits, and receives data. It also allows you to thoroughly analyze application code and review security issues in decompiled application code. All of this together helps identify threats and security vulnerabilities before they turn into risks.
Mobile app security threats in Android and iOS apps
Android and iOS make up most of the mobile devices we use today, so they’re a priority for securing the app infrastructure. Some of the well-known security risks for mobile apps in Android and iOS are discussed below.
Attackers use reverse engineering to understand how a mobile app works and formulate the exploits for an attack. They use automated tools to decrypt the application binary and rebuild the app source code, also known as code obfuscation.
Code obfuscation prevents humans and automated tools from understanding the inner workings of an app and is one of the best ways to mitigate reverse engineering.
Improper platform usage
Improper platform usage occurs when app developers misuse system functions, such as misusing certain APIs or documented security guidelines.
As mentioned above, the mobile app platform is one of the most common threat points exploited by attackers. So, keeping it secure and using it properly should be one of your main concerns.
Lower update frequency
In addition to the new features, functionalities, and aesthetics, app updates comprise many security-related changes and updates for regular downloads to keep the apps up-to-date. However, most people never update their mobile apps, which leaves them vulnerable to security attacks.
Mobile app updates also remove the irrelevant features or code sequences no longer functional and possibly have a vulnerability that attackers can exploit. The low update frequency is a direct threat to app security.
Jailbreaking means the phone users can gain full access to the operating system (OS) root and manage all app functions. Rooting refers to removing restrictions on a mobile phone running the app.
Since most app users don’t have coding and OS management expertise, they can accidentally enable or disable a feature or functionality that the attackers could exploit. They may end up exposing their data or app credentials, which can be disastrous.
Mobile app security: gradual, consistent, and exhaustive
Always remember, security isn’t something that you can construct like a building and forget about later. You need to proactively and comprehensively monitor and assess the security policies and methods.
A robust, reliable, and self-remediating security posture results from consistent efforts and is gradually achieved as you deploy and understand the security measures over time. Implementing and managing these security measures across your business network is nothing short of a Herculean task.
So, be patient and develop your security strategy step by step.
Finally, be on the watch with dynamic application security testing (DAST) software, because a simple security threat can tarnish your reputation.