Mobile App Security: How to Launch and Maintain a Secure App

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In today’s reality, the phone is the key to almost all our private data — from conversations to health records and bank information. When data becomes a valuable resource, many people want to make money from it, but some of them don’t want to ask for your permission. This fact makes mobile app security not just an inevitable need but an added value.

In our article, we will cover topics on how to safeguard your mobile app with best practices to prevent vulnerabilities before developing a new app, and give pro tips about security-efficient upgrades of the existing app. The outline is as follows:

  1. What is Application Security and What is its Importance?
  2. Security Threats for Mobile Apps
  3. How to Safeguard Your Mobile App From Scratch
  4. Mobile App Security Best Practices Against Threats
  5. Mobile Application Security Assessment — NIX Expertise
  6. Conclusion

What is Application Security and What is its Importance?

Application security is the process of examining and testing to make sure that mobile, web applications, and APIs are protected from potential attacks. In this article, we’ll look at more details of the topic of mobile app security in particular.

Diving deep into mobile app threats and overcoming them effectively

The dramatic growth of smartphone use in the workplace has led to a rapid increase in mobile threats and requires new mobile app security standards and measures.

When a user agrees to the terms of the app, your company becomes responsible for the user’s personal data. The unpleasant reality is that business applications are three times more prone to data breaches than regular applications. 

Your business could be in big trouble if an app doesn’t have enough security to protect against vulnerabilities, as data breaches cost organizations millions of dollars, and public reporting of a breach can have a severe impact on a brand’s reputation. Thus, robust mobile security is the number one priority since smartphone and mobile app usage will only increase in the future.

Security Threats for Mobile Apps

Before jumping into the mobile security threats, let’s take a brief look at the alarming numbers. According to Intertrust:

  • 83% of apps have at least one security flaw.

  • Nearly three-quarters of applications would fail even a basic security test.

  • Mobile security vulnerabilities are found in 91% of iOS apps and 95% of Android apps.

Diving deep into mobile app threats and overcoming them effectively

The following vulnerabilities can make your application a prime target for tricky threat actors:

  • Data leaks: When downloading an app, users often immediately fill out prompts to start using the app without properly reviewing permissions. Some apps can use this pattern for getting more information about users for future advertisement purposes or to resell it for additional profit.

    Such amount and character of data can attract hackers, who will use the lack of security and vulnerabilities to gain access and use it for future cybercrimes. For information on what to do about it, read below.
  • Cryptography issues: Mobile cryptography keeps data and applications secure — in fact, it’s critical to security. Developers trying to cut corners or save time for tight deadlines can use encryption algorithms with existing vulnerabilities or not use encryption at all.

    Threat actors can exploit these vulnerabilities or steal data from a compromised mobile device. Therefore, iOS must verify that the app has a digital signature from a trusted source and then decrypt the app to run it. Android, on the other hand, simply verifies the app with a digital signature and does not have to authenticate the signer.
  • Phishing attacks: Users are vulnerable because smartphones are always on and they often monitor emails or texts in real time. For example, by injecting mail headers, an attacker can send emails to application users posing as any employee of the company that owns the mobile app.

    Unfortunately there are no direct methods of protection inside the application which the developers could implement, as it is the users who are involved in the attacks. But it is possible to minimize the threat of such attacks, for example with two-step authentication. Also, by educating users about the risk such attacks can present, how to recognize potential attacks, malware sites, and phishing attempts, and put proper response procedures in place.
  • Malicious mobile apps: Hackers can create copycat apps and put them in third-party app stores, and then — like phishing schemes — use this malware of unsecured apps to steal sensitive user data. This is common in app stores with poor moderation and usually does not appear in official ones.
  • Spyware: There is a closer threat than malware sending data streams back to cybercriminals. Spyware from friends, who were also attacked, colleagues or family tracking location and activity is becoming increasingly common.

    This is a threat that cannot be completely eliminated at the application level because it is affected by external factors, even if a comprehensive anti-virus package uses specialized scanning techniques for this type of malware. But security experts can give you some tips and advice on how to circumvent this problem so that there are no company-level leaks of corporate information.
  • Operating system vulnerabilities: Many users refuse to update the system when upgrades appear. In any case, the only and best defense against new mobile threats is to update the operating system and mobile devices as soon as possible if the operating system is no longer up to date.

How to Safeguard Your Mobile App From Scratch

Embedding mobile application development security at the beginning is key. A comprehensive mobile strategy involves not just strategic planning, but also identifying and mitigating roadblocks on the path to mobile project maturity, establishing strategic objectives and KPIs, and choosing the right tools and technology.

The frequent desire to minimize implementation costs and rapid growth leads to the omission of many points, among which is safety. However, in today’s agile environments, the increased flexibility of the software development life cycle (SDLC) allows more features to be developed more quickly. This requires security to be embedded into the SDLC to allow for constant assessment of the application code for vulnerabilities and issues as the code is being developed. 

Security Software Development Life Cycle — NIX expertise

NIX engineers follow the security software development life cycle (SSDLC) process, integrating security into the software development process.

Diving deep into mobile app threats and overcoming them effectively

Let’s take a closer look at security implementation at each of the SDLC stages:

  1. Requirements: Depending on the business industry and future use cases, we define risks, standards and policies distinctive to specific business domains and countries. This comprises both standard cybersecurity rules and practices, as well as specified policies such as HIPAA, PCI DSS, GDPR, CCPA, etc.Diving deep into mobile app threats and overcoming them effectively
  2. Design: Our experts perform threat assessment, build the app threat models to identify and address the security risks associated with the application, and define the security requirements for the product. By doing this, engineers build the architecture of future software. NIX engineers create solutions based on vast experience working with a variety of projects, from large enterprise systems to simple applications, and always take into account the specifics of each type of solution in every domain.
  3. Development: Our experts strictly follow guidelines and requirements for secure development such as the Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP) security development and testing guide and ASVS.

    Also, we use the latest versions of libraries and frameworks and monitor this software for potential cybersecurity risks. Static application security testing (SAST) allows specialists to identify problems during the phase of software development.

    If necessary, we provide additional security hardening to comply with business domain specificity and policies.

Recommendations for developers:

From NIX practices we recommend OWASP Proactive Controls for Software developers — 10 mandatory aspects of security that software developers should focus on. This refers to development in general, but for mobile applications, check the top 10 mobile controls and design principles.

  1. Testing: We provide testing required for the secure and efficient functioning of a system. Our internal security team implements dynamic application security testing (DAST) in projects using security scanners such as OWASP Zed Attack Proxy (ZAP), Burp Suite Pro, etc. In addition, our team conducts security testing according to OWASP methodology along with periodic penetration tests.Diving deep into mobile app threats and overcoming them effectively
  2. Deployment and maintenance: We deploy the software to production, set up secure configurations, and provide post-production activities that prevent and stop various types of cyberattacks. We can also implement firewalls and other solutions that monitor traffic and send notifications about any deviations. Cybersecurity is always a dynamic field and its systems must continually evolve to be able to solve potential threats. NIX engineers provide such analyses that estimate if the current security level is sufficient for a system. By working out the architecture, our engineers always provide ways to increase the security level in further project evolution.

 

If you want to have a security application, the information above is the minimum you have to meet. Remember that actually all security measures are scalable anytime; it depends more on well-built architecture in general. Make sure your particular team is aware of everything we have mentioned, and let’s proceed.

Needed Team for Securing Mobile Applications

To cover this topic, remember that security is a set of measures and, accordingly, to ensure securing mobile applications, it is necessary to involve all participants in development.

This requires regular training for all SSDLC participants, the creation of development guidelines and, of course, security testing, both internal (internal pentest) and external (third party pentest), all of which should not be neglected. More specific team roles are the following:

  1. Security architect: At the system design stage, cybersecurity specialists, as well as compliance specialists, need to be involved to think through the application architecture. At the pre-release stage, this could also be internal QA engineers. An architect considers the security of all system components.
  2. Security engineer: A universal soldier that can do a lot of work, starting from requirements analysis to internal pentesting.
  3. Security champions: It’s important to remember that security needs specialists, and it’s good to have champions.This should be experts from within the team who are enthusiastic about security and strive to make the project secure. They could be in all departments of product development (developers, QA engineers, devops, managers, etc.).

 

Cybersecurity professionals can evaluate how well the application copes with existing and possible threats to protect both users and the enterprise from potential accidents. Building a secure mobile app requires collaboration between developers, security experts, and senior executives. We’ve listed the main ones — to implement security measures, make sure your team has at least these key participants. 

Mobile App Security Best Practices Against Threats

The following are some of the NIX team’s mobile app security best practices for protecting private corporate data used with your mobile apps:

  1. High-level authentication: Developers should design applications so that they only accept strong alphanumeric passwords. Moreover, it is worth making it so that users change their passwords from time to time. For extremely private applications, security can be enhanced with biometric authentication using facial ID or fingerprints. The lack of such authentication results in security breaches.

    In iOS, there are protections that can theoretically stop reverse engineering by using code encryption. Local storage of sensitive data is acceptable only in special directories with encryption — thus, Android has a key vault called Keystore, and iOS has Keychain. However,these are not perfect or unique solutions — developers have to remember that if weak key management strategies are used, the most powerful encryption algorithms will not prevent an attack.
  2. Source code obfuscation: Mobile malware can easily track bugs and weaknesses in the source code and design because much of the code in the native mobile app is on the client side. Typically, using a reverse-engineering technique, hackers repackage well-known apps as fraudulent ones. They upload these apps to third-party app stores to attract unaware users.

    It is worth realizing that such threats will undoubtedly have a negative impact on a company’s reputation. When creating applications, developers should include tools to detect and fix security vulnerabilities.
  3. Protection sensitive data with encryption: Speaking of access to sensitive data, some developers can build mobile apps in such a way that unstructured data is stored in the local file system and/or database in the device’s storage. However, data in a sandbox is not encrypted, so there is a large area for potential weaknesses.

    To ensure security in a sandbox environment, developers, for example, implement encryption of mobile app data using SQLite database encryption modules.
  4. Latest cryptography techniques usage: Often even the most popular cryptographic algorithms, such as MD5 and SHA1, become inadequate to meet the continually evolving security requirements. This is why it is important to stay relevant to the latest security algorithms, and if possible use encryption methods such as AES with 512-bit encryption, 256-bit encryption and SHA-256 for hashing.
  5. Backend security: It is important to have security measures in place to protect against malicious attacks on the backend servers, considering that most mobile applications have a client-server mechanism.

    It is necessary to check all APIs according to the mobile platform you are going to develop, as the authentication and API transport mechanisms may differ from one platform to another. APIs are the most important part of our work, so the data must be securely protected. Always verify who is using the services and try to limit sensitive data in memory.
  6. Minimizing the sensitive data storage: Some developers can store data in the local memory of the device. However, storing confidential data in this way can increase security risks. If you have no choice but to store data, use encrypted data containers or keychains. Also, don’t forget to minimize logging by adding an auto-delete feature that automatically deletes logs after a certain time.

Diving deep into mobile app threats and overcoming them effectively

Bonus tip: perform regular security testing!

Mobile Application Security Assessment — NIX Expertise

We’ve by no means covered the entire list, just some of the most common mobile app security threats and best practices for protecting against them. Security is an ongoing process and it doesn’t end within the whole life of your app. 

Application security assessment or application pentest aims to find vulnerabilities that malicious actors could exploit to steal confidential data or abuse the application’s business logic. The right security assessment can give you certainty about the security of your mobile apps and APIs. A professional security assessment covering those points, which reduces risk, saves time, and implements actionable security measures to not only improve security, but also meet mandatory compliance requirements — is a best practice for evaluating your app’s security controls. 

The NIX flow of mobile security assessment:

  1. Conduct a security assessment and analyze the current policies in the project.
  2. Receive a report on the vulnerabilities, found and give recommendations for fixing them. 
  3. Fix vulnerabilities by priority.
  4. Perform security checks on a regular basis and implement them into the development cycle.

Since a one-time action will not fix all problems, but only reveal weaknesses, remember also that there is no such thing as a completely safe application, because there is always a balance to be found between security of the application, its usability, and the money spent on security.

Conclusion

Mobile threats are constantly evolving, and the methods your company is trying to protect itself from may already be outdated and replaced by more advanced approaches, strategies, and technologies. Without thorough security testing, attackers can infect your app with malware or spyware, and sensitive data can be compromised.

But of course, we realize security issues can’t simply be resolved by going through a few simple steps. If you need help to find out what exactly your app needs, contact a mobile app development company which will be a reliable vendor for you and will guide you through the process.

Any further questions about mobile app regulation? Contact NIX specialists to leave no room for questions and hesitations.