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App Security Insights

Why it Pays to Secure Your Mobile Application

Dec 18, 2017 11:00:00 AM / by Sung Cho

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Mobile technology has gone through more than a few changes on its way to becoming the prominent tool it is today. A defining part of this development has centered on mobile applications themselves, which are widely employed on smartphones and tablets the world over. As this user base has steadily increased, the necessity to secure your mobile application has only intensified.

The universal embrace of this technology has set off a chain reaction that has seen mobile application security rightfully evolve into an integral part of the development process. And such forward momentum couldn’t have come at a more critical time.

More and more, security breaches seem to be occuring at the highest levels of countless industries, exposing millions of consumers to vulnerabilities that might very well lead to fraud and/or identity theft. Moreover, when a breach does occur, the damage isn’t limited to the users. Without proper security precautions, developers are putting themselves in the crosshairs. Their hard-earned success and long-term livelihood could come irreparably under attack, and it might be years until they recover, if they do at all.

That’s why we consider mobile application security to be one of the most important issues developers currently face, and we make it our business to spread awareness of the difference that even the most basic security framework can make on your business and your relationship with your users.

So let’s delve into some of the key risks that could put your app and its users in jeopardy.

Looming Threats

For developers, it might feel like attacks are waiting on all sides, and in many ways, this isn’t far from the truth. While it may feel like every aspect of your mobile application is egregiously open to attack, there are a few discernible risk factors that we can pinpoint. Identifying these early can arm you with the knowledge you need to keep act in a timely fashion and protect the long-term future of your business.

  • Data storage: This is nothing new. We’ve previously discussed how essential it is that your app boast enough storage to comfortably hold the traffic and internal data. Naturally, your storage also needs to be secure enough to withstand attack. Relying on client storage simply isn’t enough, regardless of how many users you may have. What you need is to include an extra layer of encryption over the base level that can ensure that your users’ data remains stored in the right place and stays safely out of the wrong hands.
  • Authentication: You might think that careful management of permissions and authorizations is a no-brainer when it comes to maintaining a safe and secure mobile application. But make not mistake. Far too many developers fail to understand the critical role that authentication plays in protecting users and their data. To ensure adequate security, you should have two-factor authentication in place, requiring users to securely log in upon each use. This is especially true if your app stores user data internally.
  • Server side controls: Hackers by and large know that the most vulnerable point for any mobile application is the data transmission that occurs between the app and the users. This server is thus most commonly the source of attack, making the need for precaution particularly strong here. You might be tempted to bring in a dedicated security personnel to keep an eye out for potential breaches, but the best way to eliminate this risk factor is to set up automated testing. Running such a scan regularly can minimize the chance that a data leak will occur and bring even the smallest security concerns to light before they become a problem.
  • Binary protection: One of the scariest scenarios for developers is a cyberattack that reverse-engineers the code of a mobile application, leaving it vulnerable to potential use as a piece of malware. What makes this so concerning is that a developer who doesn’t have a security plan in place might not realize this attack has even occurred for an extended period. Thankfully, binary protection -- which involves hardening techniques -- can largely safeguard against this activity. Reverse-engineering is the kind of tactic that keeps many developers up at night, since it can devastate an app in no time at all. Deft handling of your code could remove or drastically lessen this worry, preemptively combating against hackers.
  • Broken encryption: Sometimes, coding can become outdated or even obsolete. Such is the nature of this fast-moving industry. When that happens, your app could become unnecessarily vulnerable to attack, whether due to an over-reliance on built-in encryption or simply neglect to keep your code updated and protected against the latest threats. In any case, be sure to keep the “keys” to your mobile application out of sight from prying eyes, and periodically review your encryption and implementation processes to guard against any impending attack.

One Step At a Time...

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The above risk factors can open your mobile application up to imminent threats, but as we’ve alluded to, this doesn’t have to be the case. Just a few simple steps can greatly limit any vulnerability to your users and your code. So, to save yourself the heartache of dealing with an attack on your app, make sure to take the following precautions as soon as possible. After all, there’s no sense in waiting for a problem to arise to have to deal with the fallout. The best security framework accounts for attacks long before they take place.

  • Managing the mobile device: It’s the central point of any mobile application. So it should be no surprise that the mobile device itself -- whether that is a smart phone or a tablet -- is the foundation for any security measures that support it. Naturally, the strategy will vary based on the operating system involved, but both Apple and Android have options and/or products available for mobile device management. Companies who use these devices across the board may wish to implement a specific policy. However, from the perspective of your app, you may wind up having to educate your users regarding what setting they should select on their devices to protect themselves from attack.
  • Data security: Whenever data is transmitted, your app and its users could be in danger of a breach. Yet, don’t forget about APIs (application programming interfaces) and their role in data management. Because APIs are such a key part of data security, you need to ensure that your app’s encryption extends beyond simply transmission to protect data within the app and device themselves. APIs should therefore carry authentication requirements on an app level to maximize the opportunity to keep unauthorized users from gaining access.
  • Secure authentication: Speaking of authentication, let’s touch briefly on how the simple task of verifying the identity of individuals accessing your app can so often get overlooked. If your app has yet to implement a thorough authentication process, consider yourself lucky that you haven’t suffered a data breach thus far. This is one of the easiest ways for hackers to break into your app and snag user data. Single sign-on is fast becoming a standard method to keep them out, but OAuth 2.0 is another, perhaps more practical option for mobile users, as it uses more accessible tools to create two-factor authentication -- requiring a user ID/password as well as an automatically generated (and unique) PIN upon each login -- for all incoming users.
  • App wrapping: Depending on the nature of your app, you might want to cordon off your app’s operation from the rest of a user’s mobile device. This process -- commonly known as “app wrapping” -- creates a separate environment for your app, giving the developer more control. This might not be an option for everyone, however, since it limits the authentication and other controls. But it’s worth considering if you feel like your app and your users would benefit from it.

Case by Case

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Still not convinced that mobile application security is worth your time and investment? Well, allow us a few more moments to persuade you of just how crucial it really is. Even with comprehensive security measures in place, some of the world’s largest companies have fallen prey to hackers and other malicious users.

So, before we wrap up this intended wake-up call to the reality of the dangers posed by a blatant lack of mobile application security, let’s take a brief glimpse into some of the most well-known security breaches we’ve seen to date and what you can learn from them.

In the financial world, companies like Sears -- and its former affiliate TRW Information Systems, which jointly were “hacked” way back in 1984 (even before the online community was fully developed) -- have been coming under attack for decades. More recently, the Equifax breach has left 150 million customers vulnerable to identity theft and fraud, and an investigation is ongoing.

Bear in mind, these are organizations -- let’s not forget retail giant Target, by the way, which made headlines with its own security breach -- that make it their business to ensure that customer data stays out of the public eye. And their business isn’t even entirely dependent on the often-underprotected world of mobile applications.

eCommerce companies who should know better -- such as eBay and PayPal, both of whom have a tremendous presence on mobile devices all over the world -- have been hit as well. The mounting number of cyberattacks appears to only increase with each passing year, and while some of the cases we’ve mentioned may have exposed millions of users to security vulnerabilities, these are far, far from the only cyberattacks to occur in the current age of mobile technology dominance.

Hackers continue to finetune their methods, leading the industry as a whole to perpetually race to catch up to their nefarious machinations. Without swift action, you’re liable to fall behind as well.

Perhaps you feel like your app isn’t large enough at this stage to warrant a cyber attack, but remember that the only reason some of the most high-profile security breaches make the news is because of how many metaphorical hoops hackers needed to navigate their way through to hack their way in.

No security plan is guaranteed to completely eliminate the possibility of a breach, but having a system in place to prevent, monitor and repair can go a long way toward creating a more proactive approach to mobile application security. The last thing you want is to see your beloved app fall flat simply because you refused to didn’t make the time to consider the unfortunate possibilities.

Act or React

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At this point, there’s no excuse why your mobile application shouldn’t be making security a cornerstone of everything that you do. The resources are quite literally at your fingertips. So many options for comprehensive security are currently on the market, and ultimately, you and your team have a decision to make. You can either act now and guarantee that you’ll minimize the chances of long-term damage by enacting a plan of action whenever a threat emerges, or you can place baseless faith in your ability to save your business when a cyberattack does occur.

Every day, such a scenario is becoming less of a question and more of an inevitability. Some of the biggest organizations across the globe are falling victim to hackers and other malicious users. You cannot afford to roll the dice on your app managing to avoid the potential pitfalls of your industry.

After all, more than just your immediate profitability is at stake. Experiencing a security breach of any kind can have long-lasting effect that cause your reputation -- the very trust that your users have put in you by using your product in the first place -- to plummet. With no reason to provide their sensitive information to you, consumers will turn elsewhere to have their needs met, and a cyber attack may adversely affect your search engine rankings as well.

Of course, all of this is preventable with the right security measures in place. Trust us, the investment is wholly worth placing your entire enterprise at risk of total annihilation.

Don’t reach that point of desperation when you can safeguard your app today.

The-Developers-Guide-To-Mobile-App-Security

Topics: Mobile App Security

Sung Cho

Written by Sung Cho

Head of Marketing at SEWORKS Co., Ltd.