App security consultancy from your favourite boffin

I’m very excited to soon be joining the ranks of Agant Ltd, working on some great apps with an awesome team of people. I’ll be bringing with me my favourite title, Smartphone Security Boffin. Any development team can benefit from a security boffin, but I’m also very excited to be in product development with the people who make some of the best products on the market.

There’s another side to all of this: once again can security boffinry be at your disposal. I’ll be available on a consultancy basis to help out with your application security and privacy issues. If you’re unsure how to do SSL right in your iOS app, are having difficulty getting your Mac software to behave in the App Store sandbox, or need help to identify the security pain points in your application’s design or code, I can lend a hand.

Of course, it’s not just about technology. The best way to help your developers get security right is to help your developers to help themselves. When I’ve done security training for developers before I’ve seen those flashes of enlightenment when delegates realise how the issues relate to their own work; the hasty notes of class or method names to look into back at the desk; the excited discusses in the breaks. Security training for iOS app developers is great for the people, great for the product – and, of course, something I can help out with.

To check availability and book some time (which will be no earlier than July), drop me a line on the twitters or at

On SSL Pinning for Cocoa [Touch]

Moxie Marlinspike, recently-acquired security boffin at Twitter, blogged about SSL pinning. The summary is that relying on the CA trust model to validate SSL certificates introduces some risk into using an app – there are hundreds of trusted roots in an operating system like iOS, and you don’t necessarily want to trust all (or even any) of the keyholders. Where you’re connecting to a specific server under your control, you don’t need anyone else to tell you the server’s identity: you know what server you need to use, you should just look for its certificate. Then it doesn’t matter if someone compromises any CA; you’re not trusting the CAs any more. He calls this SSL pinning, and it’s something I’ve recommended to Fuzzy Aliens clients over the past year. I thought it’d be good to dig into how you do SSL pinning on Mac OS X and iOS.

The first thing you need to do is to tell Foundation not to evaluate the server certificate itself, but to pass the certificate to you for checking. You do this by telling the NSURLConnection that its delegate can authenticate in the “server trust” protection space.

-(BOOL)connection:(NSURLConnection *)connection canAuthenticateAgainstProtectionSpace:(NSURLProtectionSpace *)space {
  return [[space authenticationMethod] isEqualToString: NSURLAuthenticationMethodServerTrust];

Now your NSURLConnection delegate will receive an authentication challenge when the SSL connection is negotiated. In this authentication challenge, you evaluate the server trust to discover the certificate chain, then look for your certificate on the chain. Because you know exactly what certificate you’re looking for, you can do a bytewise comparison and don’t need to do anything like checking the common name or extracting the fingerprint: it either is your certificate or it isn’t. In the case below, I look only at the leaf certificate, and I assume that the app has a copy of the server’s cert in the sealed app bundle at

- (void)connection:(NSURLConnection *)connection didReceiveAuthenticationChallenge:(NSURLAuthenticationChallenge *)challenge {
  if ([[[challenge protectionSpace] authenticationMethod] isEqualToString: NSURLAuthenticationMethodServerTrust]) {
    SecTrustRef serverTrust = [[challenge protectionSpace] serverTrust];
    (void) SecTrustEvaluate(serverTrust, NULL);
    NSData *localCertificateData = [NSData dataWithContentsOfFile: [[NSBundle mainBundle]
                                                                    pathForResource: serverName
                                                                    ofType: @"cer"]];
    SecCertificateRef remoteVersionOfServerCertificate = SecTrustGetCertificateAtIndex(serverTrust, 0);
    CFDataRef remoteCertificateData = SecCertificateCopyData(remoteVersionOfServerCertificate);
    BOOL certificatesAreTheSame = [localCertificateData isEqualToData: (__bridge NSData *)remoteCertificateData];
    if (certificatesAreTheSame) {
      [[challenge sender] useCredential: [NSURLCredential credentialForTrust: serverTrust] forAuthenticationChallenge: challenge];
    else {
      [[challenge sender] cancelAuthenticationChallenge: challenge];
  // fall through for challenges in other spaces - or respond to them if you need to

That’s really all there is to it. You may want to change some of the details depending on your organisation: for example you may issue your own intermediate or root certificate and check for its presence while allowing the leaf certificate to vary; however the point is to get away from the SSL certificate authority trust model so I haven’t shown that here.

On the top 5 iOS appsec issues

Nearly 13 months ago, the Intrepidus Group published their top 5 iPhone application development security issues. Two of them are valid issues, the other three they should perhaps have thought longer over.

The good

Sensitive data unprotected at rest

Secure communications to servers

Yes, indeed, if you’re storing data on a losable device then you need to protect the data from being lost, and if you’re retrieving that data from elsewhere then you need to ensure you don’t give it away while you’re transporting it.

Something I see a bit too often is people turning off SSL certificate validation while they’re dealing with their test servers, and forgetting to turn it on in production.

The bad

Buffer overflows and other C programming issues

While you can indeed crash an app this way, I’ve yet to see evidence you can exploit an iOS app through any old buffer overflow due to the stack guards, restrictive sandboxes, address-space layout randomisation and other mitigations. While there are occasional targeted attacks, I would have preferred if they’d been specific about which problems they think exist and what devs can do to address them.

Patching your application

Erm, no. Just get it right. If there are fast-moving parts that need to change frequently, extract them from the app and put them in a hosted component.

The platform itself

To quote Scott Pack in “The DMZ”, If you can’t trust your users to implement your security plan, then your security plan must work without their involvement. In other words, if you have a problem and the answer is to train 110 million people, then you have two problems.