Mobile apps account for more than half of all web traffic worldwide. Mobile users are expected to grow in numbers up to 3.8 billion in 2021. An average mobile phone user spends about 40% of the non-sleeping time online [img]. And nearly every 39 seconds, an American phone user gets hit by a cyberattack. In those hits, people lose their identity, money, reputation, and sometimes whole lives when personal data leaks into the web. Failure to see all these issues and rigidity to make your application safe will lead to the loss of all of the above but this time for your business. So let’s talk about mobile app security in detail: what it is, how much it matters, and how to keep your mobile application safe at all times.
What is mobile app security?
Security in mobile app development stands for all the measures and means used to keep an application secure from any kind of cyberattacks. They may come in the format of malware, network spoofing, hacking, phishing, spyware, and many other criminal manipulations. Cybersecurity for mobile apps needs to be implemented not only in the format of technological methods but also through business processes and personal responses of app users. Here is a short list of practices in the development of the secure mobile app:
- Pre-panning: studying of the security measures required for an app of your type
- Planning: design and drafting of the security features an app should have
- Development: following the steps outlined and selected before to make an app compliant with all security regulations
- Pre-launch: thorough security testing
- Post-launch: continuous monitoring and retesting of app security features + careful and instant addressing of arising security risks and threats
The main rule of mobile data protection
Cybersecurity attacks happen for one reason only – to steal data of your app users. If you have a fintech solution, then this would also include debit card access; for a health-tracking app, it might mean even medical records. Regardless of the application’s purpose, the collection of any data poses a slight risk to the app owner. Just imagine that you’ve developed a calculator, which collects no data. What harm can it do? None. So the more information you collect about your users, the greater a threat that you will face. So rule #1 in app security is as follows: The safest data is the one you do not collect.
Yes, data helps with marketing, targeting, updates, and improvements. But the less information you have, the less risk of exposure you will meet. So collect only the absolute essentials, only the data without which your application will not work correctly.
Remember also that you have to notify and get the approval of every user in your solution about the data you are or will be retrieving from them. Owing to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), any software developer and owner is now legally obliged to protect users’ data, providing them with complete transparency and control over all the collected data.
Top reasons to consider mobile app security for business
The first and foremost reason for using technology for mobile data security is to protect your company and users’ data. Data breach is not a new concept; it has been in the market since 2005. That was the year when DSW Shoe Warehouse compromised 1.4 million credit card numbers and names on their clients’ accounts. It was a big deal because this case is considered to be the first data breach in history. In February 2021, there were 118 publicly-known incidents with 2,323,326,953 breached records (yes, in just one month!). The speed and severity of security breaches grow in size and severity. So, if you are still not convinced about the importance of mobile data protection even though Epsilon lost as much as $4 billion because of it, read about the main reasons for data protection.
- Anticipate the breaches. Regular mobile security testing helps enterprises stay on top of data breaches. One never knows when the next attack will come, so anticipation and readiness to prevent them are among the best and most reliable weapons a business can have.
- Control the devices. BYOD is a trend that has been dominating the market for quite some time. Enterprise app development and transfer of all data into the cloud allow employees to access
- s business-related information from any device, including personal ones. Since business devices have several security layers while personal ones do not, mobile app security practices can help managers control the usage of the company data and guarantee its safety regardless of the access device.
- Monitor 3rd-party services. It is rare today that custom mobile app development is done within the internal system only. Frequently, it also involves a third-party structure on the backend. Security measures allow verifying app behavior at the endpoint, for instance, communication security between backend/web service/systems, etc. Such practices are essential because companies never share all security protocols with vendors; hence, they need to double-check all the endpoints to avoid security breaches.
- Comply with the regulations. Owing to the growing number of breaches and data loss, the industry of mobile app development has pretty high standards of data protection. By going through the security regularly, a company can spot any inconsistency not to miss on the audit and lose its ISO certification, for example.
- Prevent app destruction. Every app development is an investment for any organization. So just imagine that a hacker got into your app backend and cut it off. Permanently. This means that the whole project is lost. The money is lost. And, sometimes, the business is lost as well. This is a worst-case scenario that rarely happens since hackers would simply require some ransom to reconnect everything back. Either way, such troubles are a loss of money for the business. App security measures that are regularly attended to can prevent such losses.
And some numbers to convince you even more:
- In 2019, 88% of organizations all over the world had spear-phishing attempts.
- 86% of all breaches were led by financial profit, thus causing money losses to the attacked companies.
- The average cost of a data breach is $3.86 million.
Instead of losing money to blackmailers, hackers, and extortioners, consider investing it in your mobile data protection because it is a much more long-term solution than a bail-out.
Most common mobile application security risks
Now that you understand the real consequences of poor data protection in the process of mobile app development, it is time to take a closer look at the actual risks you might be facing. Please note that the resulting risk might be posed by several vulnerable spots in an app, so it is highly advised to address as many of those below as possible.
Top app vulnerabilities and related risks
- Remote access to the app data caused by insecure interprocess communication (IPC). When app components communicate through Intent message objects, any sensitive data inside can be easily compromised by malware with a registered BroadcastReceiver instance. To avoid this risk in custom mobile app development, use LocalBroadcastManager to exchange broadcast messages (for Android-based apps).
- Phishing risks caused by IPC for iOS. Generally, this risk is smaller than the previous one since IPC is forbidden for iOS apps. Yet, IPC is required for apps on iOS devices to share data (for example, to share a link from the browser into a social media network). In most cases, mobile app development utilizes deep linking for such communication (so an app gets called out by a specific URL scheme). The problem is that a malicious app may also employ the same technique. And in this way, the app opens the opportunity for a phishing attack or credentials stealing. To avoid this risk, simply use universal links in the app for interactions between components.
- Data theft can become possible if the application allows using an external third-party keyboard. This was uncovered when a virtual keyboard app leaked information of 31 million users back in 2017. Suppose your application requires an input of any sensitive data, such as a card number. In that case, it is highly recommended to implement a custom keyboard inside the app and also block the usage of third-party keyboards just to be on the safe side.
- Backup theft is a common threat for Android-based apps. The problem is that whenever an application creates a backup, it might be stored locally on the device rather than in a cloud. And once the user connects the phone to a computer, this backup file becomes available for theft. Here, the tip is simple – disable automatic app backup for users but remember to inform them about it! Or automatically store the backup in the cloud while prohibiting local backup files. Take particular care of this feature when working on an enterprise app development project.
- Storage data leak is another frequent risk for applications with sensitive data, such as financial information, login credentials, correspondence, etc. This risk comes from the fact that every app gets a snapshot of the latest screen when users switch between apps on their devices. This screen might contain sensitive data, and then the infected mobile device might leak this data without the owner even knowing it. In this situation, ensure that while working on your app security, you remove any sensitive data from this screenshot (by using a particular or even generic background image). If you need an example, just use an official app for any bank to see this tip in action.
- Credentials loss might happen if logging in is done on the client-side. In this case, the credentials data will be stored on the mobile device, and the risk of leak or loss increases. To prevent this outcome, simply keep and verify login credentials on the server-side, which will pass the input data as hashes that are harder to steal or hack. Should you allow the touch/face ID login to the application, ensure that the locally stored data is encrypted within the Keystone directory for Android and Keychain for iOS.
- Stolen passwords on the server-side are not common, yet very possible. The development of a secure mobile app frequently requires two-step verification. This means that whenever a user logs into the app, they receive an SMS and a push notification with the same info about the passcode for login. If a fraudulent user is tracking the original user’s SMS data, they would be able to easily impersonate their app account and perform any actions within the app. To avoid this risk, set up your application to send only one type of notification and make your user select one.
- Data leaks can also happen whenever the application provides sensitive session or user data to the server-side. For instance, hackers might check interlocutor’s data on a chat in the server response or get session ID, hence gaining the possibility to impersonate the original user. Make sure to encrypt all the data that goes to the server-side and never transmit direct session or user data to the server unprotected.
Risks caused by external factors
Besides the lack of security within the app itself, any custom mobile app development company also needs to consider third-party factors, like users tampering with their phones, third-party apps, or insecure networks. In fact, there are hundreds of things that might go south taking your perfect application down. So let’s have a look at the following risks and means of preventing them.
Network spoofing is the creation of a fake access point by hackers. This basically means a fake Wi-Fi network, which is common in high-traffic locations, such as restaurants, bus stops, airports, libraries, etc. The risk here is that the hackers can become the middleman in the process of data transfer, so the user of your app might expose some sensitive data to third-party systems and people. The main receommendation would be the implementation of certificate pinning for client-server communication. In this way, a developer can embed the certificate directly into the mobile app, hence preventing the so-called man-in-the-middle attacks.
Some users would also root their devices via third-party apps. Most of them do not understand what this means precisely and, in fact, only expose their devices to attacks and manipulation. To set the right level of mobile app security in your solution, simply prohibit it from running in a rooted environment. If you are not sure how to do it, contact a mobile app development company to either seek their assistance or just get a consultation on the matter. If, even after the discussion with experts, you still cannot prevent it completely, set up regular warning messages to be sent to the users.
Some mobile users and even manufacturers go for OS customization. For instance, HTC and Samsung alter Android to include their brand on this OS. The bad news is a developer is not always able to foresee the changes that a particular user or manufacturer will make. And such customizations frequently lead to security breaches in the original OS. Again, the good way out is to simply prevent your app from running on the customized OSs or adjust it to the known changes (like for manufacturer’s tricks) in advance. Otherwise, make sure to set up a disclaimer for the users.
Best practices of mobile app security
You already know what app security means, what threats may compromise it, and you have a couple of tricks on how to mitigate those risks. But while risk mitigation is a good strategy, to make your app development project a success, it is essential to implement a winning strategy. In terms of mobile app development, this means following the best practices to secure an application right from the first days of the development process. We will present a list of top ten practices with short explanations for each.
- Digital security training: developers need to know what app security means. So get an expert in mobile app development security to dot the i’s or teach the basics.
- Secure the code: obfuscate or minify your code to prevent hackers from reverse engineering it and finding your code vulnerabilities.
- Protect the backend: firewalls, APIs, code containerization, data encryption can help prevent hacker attacks.
- Proper authorization: before authorizing any access, identify the users and authenticate them. Multi-factor authentication is the modern answer for app security. But you’d better read more about the risks that such an authorization process may pose.
- Data storage: always encrypt storage! And while leaving public data in plain sight, protect sensitive data by keeping it somewhere in the cloud rather than on a user’s device.
- Carefully vet libraries: third-party libraries are frequently insecure, so before using one on PROD, verify its efficiency and security level in lower environments.
- Regulate distribution: for enterprise app development, ensure to set up mobile device management and mobile app management practices for the clients; for general-use mobile apps, create distribution channels (app stores) and prevent possibilities of app copying.
- Monitor data transfers: implement SSL and VPN practices to secure data while it is transferred from the device to the storage or vice versa.
- Remote blocking: should the user’s device get stolen and their personal data is on it, you need to have an option of blocking the app use remotely.
- Test and re-test: security testing for mobile data protection must become your routine. Regularly re-test all your systems to ensure that no breaches or leaks happen and/or can happen.
App security tools for tests
This is not a coincidence that testing was our #10 rule above. Continuous tests performed under the widest variety of scenarios will not be able to guarantee that your app is 100% secure; yet, they can help you get closer to the perfection mark. We believe that testing is one of the most crucial elements of mobile app security, so to help you deal with it better, here are the top ten testing tools.
- MobSF (Mobile Security Framework): automated mobile app security solution for iOS and Android apps for web API testing as well as dynamic and static analysis.
- ADB (Android Debug Bridge): a command-line tool that can simulate a real Android device and run security tests for it.
- ZAP (Zed Attack Proxy): automated and manual penetrations and scans help detect app vulnerabilities at the development/testing stage.
- QARK (Quick Android Review Kit): static code analysis to identify code issues before broader testing is performed.
- Drozer: an open-source tool for testing Android devices and their emulators in a very short time.
- WhiteHat Security: static/dynamic testing and security assessment solution for mobile as well as web and desktop security.
- MAST (Mobile App Security Testing by Veracode): an efficient cloud-based tool for automated security glitches identification. It also offers instant resolution options.
- Kiuwan: a broad approach to software testing with one of the largest tech coverage in the industry and a possibility to automate any test needed.
- iMAS: app penetration tool that locates the app’s weak spots and helps with encrypting those to prevent actual jailbreaks and binary patching.
- Fortify: end-to-end testing helps with identifying app vulnerabilities (on the client, backend, network sides).
Almost half of the world population uses a mobile phone daily, so application security for mobile devices is one of the top trending topics in 2021. Every day hackers attack corporations to steal their data, and competitors look for the ways to take the lead in the market. The cybersecurity risks, their variety and complexity evolve continuously, so new methods of protecting sensitive data appear on the map at the same pace.
Whether you are planning a mass-app or seeking custom enterprise apps development, mobile app security practices must be implemented even at the idea-development level. In this article, we presented the top threats and risks faced by an app developer based on our own experience in the industry. Remember to test and question your security levels to ensure that you do not miss a vulnerable element or a breach hidden in the code. Use the tools listed above, verify the security risks outlined, or just approach an experienced team for help like the SwagSoft mobile apps development team.
We have been in the market of mobile solutions development for more than ten years and learned many tricks about developing safe and friendly applications. A game app, a fintech solution, a healthcare application, or maybe a custom offer for your enterprise – we worked with many clients from different industries and apps of all scopes. Contact us if you need a reliable partner to find a secure mobile solution or expert guidance in the development of a secure mobile app.