Mobile application security. If you’re an app developer, this term should not only be familiar to you but should actively inform every step of your development. In recent years, mobile devices like smart phones and tablets have become such an essential part of everyday life that research shows smart phones in particular are the predominant tools consumers use to connect online.
That’s quite radical growth, considering that the market only really became mainstream a decade or so ago. Yet, the convenience and versatility of mobile devices have handily changed the market, creating many opportunities for those working in the industry. Yet, like everything else, there is a dark side to this emerging trend.
The ability to connect online on a whim — often over public networks — has made it easier than ever for hackers and other malicious users to target users and their devices. App developers who once may have never considered the vulnerabilities their products present have had to rise to the occasion and implement intense security measures just to keep their source code and sensitive user information out of the wrong hands.
Even then, the chances that a cyberattack could slip through this defense certainly keeps some developers awake at night, worrying that their hard work will be exploited and their customers violated. It has happened time and time again over the years, but there’s only one way for you to learn from these mistakes. So let’s journey through the life and times of mobile application security.
A Look Back
Mobile technology is all about freedom, and finding a delicate balance between that freedom and the control necessary to ensure a secure user experience has been the ongoing challenge of the industry.
With so many factors to consider such as constantly shifting locations and the ability to shift users at a moment’s notice, mobile security brings a unique set of demands that developers have struggled to meet ever since mobile devices have gone on the market. The introduction of cloud-based applications and social media has only further complicated this, boosting interactivity on the web and the potential for vulnerabilities.
This has become an especially big problem for companies that have been tasked with maintaining security and compliance standards in a world where anything goes. There’s little room for regulation of mobile devices themselves when access is so simple and many of the factors that would ordinarily govern security are as mutable as they’ve ever been.
How exactly can one hope to control each user and his or her activity when several devices are often in play as well, and the line between personal and professional is constantly blurring? The simple answer is that we are continually looking for better and better ways to do just that.
When mobile technology started, none of these concerns were central to the conversation. Rather than focusing on safety and security, the focus was on creating an unforgettable user experience.
One cannot really blame those early pioneers of the mobile space for failing to possess the foresight to see what the technology would evolve into and where it would take us as a society. Few forms of technology have grown as fast and as widespread as mobile has, and consumers themselves have adopted it for the most part without even considering the potential security risks, leaving the responsibility to fall squarely on developers.
With so much sensitive data transmitting every day and countless apps running often simultaneously, mobile devices are a cyber-attackers dream. But it’s your job as app developers to anticipate their every move and to put your app in a constant state of evolution, in which you can quickly and smoothly integrate new information into your security protocol without missing a beat.
In the end, your app is the tool by which your customers accomplish whatever goal they set their mind to when they downloaded it, and there’s a certain amount of inherent trust they place in you when they choose to take on your product.
From corporate laptops and Blackberry devices to today’s wide variety of iPhones and Androids, the evolution of mobile devices as well as their security has been swift, and the proliferation of mobile applications has, if anything, been even swifter. The key to minimizing security concerns in the midst of all this is knowledge and education, both on the part of the users themselves and developers like yourself. Journeying back through the various stages of mobile security is as good a place to start as any.
Generations of Protection
As we trace mobile security through the years, let’s take a closer look at each generation of technology and how it has changed, offering more and more options to developers hungry to protect their investment and their precious customers.
- Before mobile applications: Initially intended to allow IT departments to control a group of usually corporately owned mobile devices, mobile device management (MDM) is fairly limited in scope, especially since security wasn’t its original purpose. After all, a pincode and remote wipe capabilities can only go so far in protecting sensitive information. For the early days of mobile technology, such tools could get you by with so few devices in circulation, and while it is still used today, the reliance on MDM has dwindled considerably over the years as the technology has grown, giving way to more sophisticated, native methods within mobile apps. The increasing personal use of devices has only underscored how insufficient MDM was in providing any real protection against hackers or in maintaining reasonable expenses for the companies who at first popularized the usage of brands like Blackberry. Moreover, personal use has complicated the privacy issue of having complete control over the device as a whole.
- The age of mobile apps: As MDM became less effective and was discovered to adversely affect consumer interest in mobile devices, the time ultimately came for an entirely new approach to come to the forefront, namely one that is container-based. In the corporate world, companies began not controlling the entire device itself but only certain segments that directly applied to this purview, allowing the user the personal privacy of their own device. In many cases, this has wound up emerging in the form of mobile applications themselves. This more specific, detailed approach has made it easier for developers and companies at large to ensure user protection within a controlled environment without infringing on any user rights. If precautions need to be taken, developers of a specific app can update, reinforce and implement whatever tools they need to, using strategies like encryption, access restrictions and authentication. The bottom line is that they have full control of their domain without affecting the big picture.
- A note about virtualization: Just as mobile apps have risen in popularity because of the additional control they provide, this alternative container-based approach focuses on creating an entire virtual environment. In this setup, users can shift from personal to professional mode on their device at will, allowing different security settings to take effect based on its use. Neither mode would affect the functionality of the device itself, but there is still enough distinction between the two to make it easy for users to manage their activity and ensure that companies are able to protect their interests as well.
- Application wrapping: Still container-based in nature, this security method creates a makeshift barrier around a group of designated applications and, in doing so, enables the data contained therein to be far less vulnerable to cyber-attacks. Although it doesn’t involve as high-level security, application wrapping has become an attractive route for developers and the like who choose to employ the encryption and other container-based tools in a less invasive manner than installing security directly into an app itself. In any case, such container-based approaches wisely rely less on mobile devices for security.
- The future is calling: With mobile devices now inextricable from daily life, you might be wondering what the next step is for security. As already alluded to, the role of devices themselves — which seem to be everywhere these days — in security has dwindled substantially, and addressing security on the server side has become the order of the day. The less reliant your mobile security is on the device, the better off you (and the user) will be. Within your app’s server, you can set limitations and fortify your coding from top to bottom, taking the security out of the hands of users and streamlining the entire process. Whether these security restrictions are based on location, user or some other criterion, this provides developers the autonomy to safeguard their time and effort without encroaching on users’ activity and device management. Since it is the freedom and convenience of mobile devices that make them so attractive to consumers, it’s essential not to negatively affect the experience.
The world out there is brimming with potential threats and security challenges. In order to prevent the likelihood of a security breach, you need to find ever vigilant and stay updated on all the latest developments throughout your industry.
In particular, be on the lookout for some of the most common vulnerabilities, such as the following:
- Malware: This term is broadly used to describe software that lures users in under false pretenses, deceiving them into sharing personal information as part of an online scam.
- Lack of encryption: Encryption is your first line of defense and should be used to protect your app and its source code from prying eyes. It’s the foundation of your security.
- Insufficient storage: When you don’t have enough storage space, you might be leaving your app open to attack. To keep storage expenses down, only store necessary information.
- Failure to update or test: Remember how we said it’s essential to to stay attuned to the latest industry trends? Likewise, you need to guard against the latest threats, and that starts by updating your software and testing it regularly.
The sheer amount of threats out there can make any developer worried about the future. Yet, if you have a sound strategy in place, then you shouldn’t stress too much about it.
Here are some key best practices that you can use as a starting point for your company’s mobile application security policy:
- Design apps with security in mind to ensure that it’s integrated into your software.
- Install two-factor user authentication to verify identity upon every single login attempt.
- Keep a close eye on your data access permissions to ensure that a breach isn’t active.
- Use application analytics to assess your app’s overall security status for quick action.
A Sense of Security
As mobile technology continues to develop, we know that the means by which developers institute these necessary security measures are sure to evolve as well. In such a short period of time, mobile application security has already made such a tremendous impact on the industry, causing companies everywhere to rethink their approaches and step up their collective game.
Although this has in turn caused cyber-attackers to innovate too, the overall trajectory of the mobile app world appears to be moving toward more self-awareness on the part of developers’ strategies and the weaknesses therein.
Even the most experienced in the mobile space still have much to learn about how to optimize their app. Going forward, the threats posed by hackers will only grow more formidable, but if the evolutionary path of mobile application security has taught us anything, it’s that the tools to continually improve and fortify our own apps’ security are well within our reach.
All we have to do is seek them out and take action before a breach occurs, and the likelihood that our app will suffer a terrible, potentially cataclysmic fate can be greatly diminished or even eradicated entirely. The past can be a source of knowledge and inspiration. Never has that been clearer than regarding mobile application security.
Now that you have a bit of background on how it has changed over the years, we can only hope that you’ll translate this into positive action that will arm your app will everything it needs to take on new challenges.