Ranju Rajendran

Web Lead

Sep, 2020
8 min read

Ensure Security Standards in Mobile App Development

Any mobile app’s lasting success is determined by the security that it provides. When using mobile apps, users are wary of the environment they are in. They want to be in a safe space where they can interact with one another when using a mobile app. This means that developers have to devote extra attention to user information security when creating the app. 

Now for some statistics:

  • There are more mobile devices interconnected than humans in this world.

  • Mobile apps in the USA account for about 86% of Internet usage in the country.

It is important to realize the fact that cybercrime is yet another rampant issue. Statistics in this area also raise a lot of concern. All the top (paid-for) apps in the Google Play Store and over 50% in the Apple app store have been hacked. The rate of increase in mobile malware infections is over 163% annually. 

ensure security standards in Mobile App Development

The sad fact is that mobile app security is frequently overlooked because of tight budgets and looming deadlines. On examination, it has been observed that over a quarter of all mobile apps have serious security flaws. Data breaches in mobile apps cost the business owner financially as well as cause a dip in employee- and consumer-trust.

As far as the vulnerabilities are concerned, they occur at different levels: system, configuration, app and networks. Security flaws can be found in OS in that sometimes patches simply do not exist or the device cannot be updated. This leaves the users in a vulnerable spot. Device security is impacted by users through passwords, device profiles, and encryption. Apps with security flaws leak sensitive personal and business data. Mobiles travel everywhere and public networks intercept data making them vulnerable. 

How to Build Mobile Security standards in Mobile App Development
 

ensure security standards in Mobile App Development

As the first step, training developers to make a conscious effort in building security in the software development life-cycle is crucial. The next step is about educating oneself and using best security practices when creating the app. Given below are some simple but effective best practices that help developers build security into mobile apps. (what is OWASP)

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Automatic Application Code Scanning

Application scanning software and tools analyze the code as it is being written. Many security issues as defined by Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP) if any are brought to the fore by this procedure. The developer receives instant feedback about the vulnerabilities that exist as the lines of code are being written.

This type of testing ensures that the testing is not pushed to end of the development cycle but is an iterative process that accompanies the development. However, these tools may not be able to pick out all the security vulnerabilities that exist and the developer should be aware of this aspect. 

Examples: IBM Security AppScan Source, OWASP SWAAT Project, and Veracode 

Use of Vetted Architecture

A complete mobile solution requires to access real-time data to perform various transactions. For these to happen safely, integration to the cloud as well as other systems should be 100% safe. That is, the control on the server’s side should be efficient and foolproof. For this, it is best to use middleware or third-party architecture that is already vetted and proven. 

Encryption of sensitive data

In addition to turning sensitive data into an unreadable format, it is important not to save sensitive users’ data onto the device or the app. To secure this kind of data, using data purging algorithms that remove sensitive data soon after use as an automatic action is recommended.

Source Code Encryption

A major part of the code for any native app is known to reside on the client-side. Hackers design malware to tap into the vulnerabilities within the design and source code and proceed to track the bugs. Popular apps are packed into rogue apps which are listed in third-party app stores. Unsuspecting users download this app instead of the original and their data is at stake. 

To prevent this from happening, the source code should be encrypted. This will prevent any kind of tampering and reverse-engineering attacks. 

Data Encryption at all levels

Though it is important to have device-level security, for optimal protection, data should be encrypted at the application level, at the file-system and the database access levels. NIST Guidelines provide information for cryptography in mobiles. 

Application Information vs. User Data – Data Isolation

When coding a mobile app, care should be taken to keep user data and application information separate. When deploying enterprise-level apps, care should be taken to introduce a protection layer (container method) which separates the application generated data from the employee information. If this aspect is taken care, it helps to improve employee satisfaction while simultaneously ensuring compliance with standards. The container method also ensures that there is no loss of precious corporate data. 

User-level Security Policies

IT security administrators should strictly enforce policies that users should adhere to. Some of these measures include disallowing sequential numbers in passwords, enabling remote wiping of application data if the user incorrectly enters the password a specified number of times, and insistence of special characters and numbers in passwords to make them strong when accessing corporate data/applications.

Network Access Security

When designing the project, project managers should reduce the need to explore networks by opening inbound ports. The mobile app should serve only encrypted information packets while simultaneously authenticating applications while granting permissions only to those that are provisioned to specific services or servers. This can help to prevent rogue attacks.

Platform Security

The strict control of platform security is enabled by the detection of jailbroken phones (certain phones bypass restrictions that are installed through the mobile carrier for purposes of customization), and prevention of access to specific services when required.

Authentication Mechanism

A strong authentication mechanism is an absolute must-have. Authentication at the application level insists that the user should enter a strong and secure password before they can launch the application. Authentication should be implemented at multiple levels and should be based on secure XML-based web services for both the user-id and the password and ID/SMS. Checking the user’s location using GPS for authentication is also recommended.

User Authorization

It is a good practice to authorize users in such a way that they can access only the applications meant for them. Once the user enters the authentication data, the application should check with the back-end whether the specific user has access to the application data. The client-side program is also managed to display only a secured navigation menu according to the user authorization permissions and access rights. Each request has to be verified before granting any access to initiate business function actions. 

Data Confidentiality

All sensitive data should be store only in the memory and not on the physical drive unless required. This kind of data can never be securely stored in a file system. Logs and error messages cannot leak out confidential data. When an application runs in the background, the application cache manager should clear up all the data. 

Data Cleanup

When a log-off request is initiated, all the secure objects such as account information, data requests, and user-related data must be wiped off. Data structures should also be removed. In case tampering of the application is suspected, the app should be force shut-down. 

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Prevention of Local Data Transfer

No data should be locally transferred from the app by copying and sending for unauthorized use. Any clipboard data should be removed when the application is running in the background. This prevents data from being copied and sent for external use. Long press for sensitive fields should be disabled to fix this vulnerability.

Connection Encryption

It is in the best interests of app security to use the HTTPS protocol to connect backend applications. Network traffic is anyway encrypted. Maintaining a white list of authorized domain names on the client-side will prevent the app from talking to other domains not present in the list.

Security Check for OS

The first check should be whether the application is running on a jail-broken device or one that is infected by malware. Based on the security check score, that app can be closed from running further if necessary and the data can be served through secure channels to the back end applications for further investigation.

Jail-broken devices

In the case of rooted or jail-broken devices, the applications must be checked and marked to prevent hackers from accessing these apps. 

Symbol Stripping/String Obfuscation/Pre-processing

 It is best to keep off plain-text resources from the application bundle. This stops the attackers from gathering precious information from the internals of the application.

Root Certificate Check

The main goal of a root certificate check is to secure all the data communication that flows between the client and the backend server. A certificate-check should be created on the client-side to ensure the approval by the organization.

Anti-Debugging

An anti-debugger system should be prevented from attaching to the mobile app, as when sensitive data from the memory-in-use is read by another running application. Techniques to harden or secure the applications should be in place. 

Tamper Check 

The application should be fashioned to verify that no manipulation has occurred. As an example, to verify if the application is being debugged, the debug flags should be checked. 

Blacklisting

Blacklisting should be used to target prohibited applications or those that are a high-security risk and stop them from executing. This can help to stop data breaches.

Event Logging

Security events that take place in the inside of the mobile app should be logged and sent back to the server. 

DNS Hijacking

The mobile app should be coded to prevent redirection of traffic to any malicious server by checking the host-name lookup list with DNS resolves to a white-list IP.

Other methods include encrypting critical assets transparently, enabling automatic updates of the OS on the mobile devices, downloading mobile apps from trusted sources, reviewing privacy options periodically, backing up the data regularly, and using built-in safeguards of the mobile app such as the username, password and six-digit PIN that are required to access the data in the app. 

This checklist is not exhaustive but is helpful for any app developer or security specialist as the threat of cybercriminals hacking into mobile apps is looming large these days. These items listed above, if implemented diligently, will help to remove a majority of data breach threats with minimal manual intervention. 

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