Some LightReading about mobile app security

[This article was co-written with @securityninja]

If mobile app security is failing, it’s up to the security industry, not developers, to repair it.

An article published yesterday at security news site DarkReading announces “Developers not applying secure development life cycle practices in mobile app production”. The author finds many faults with the way application security is treated by mobile app developers, but doesn’t address what we believe to be the underlying problem: the engagement between security specialists and app makers.

Before addressing this point, though, there are several inaccuracies in the article that need to be corrected. Ericka Chickowski describes the mobile app landscape as “a development environment still in its infancy and no real standards to lead the way”, though in fact developers are able to bring a lot of the experience and tools they’ve used in building desktop and web apps to the party. The Cocoa Touch SDK used in Apple’s iOS shares a common heritage with Mac OS X’s Cocoa, just as the Java used in Android and SilverLight in Windows Phone 7 strongly resemble their desktop counterparts. For example the Code Access Security approach introduced in Silverlight ended up being adopted as the Code Access Security approach for the whole .NET framework.

Taking the 50,000 foot view, mobile apps look a lot like any other software application: there’s a client that’s delivered to the user somehow, which has some local storage and (often) communicates to an online service via the internet. This is exactly the situation we see with web apps, and indeed a lot of the techniques used to secure web apps are directly applicable in the mobile world. Sure there are new challenges to address with mobile, but these represent a tweak, not a rewrite, of security advice for developers.

It is probably fair to say security guidance and testing tools aren’t quite as mature as they are in the web application security world but to say they don’t exist is false. One of us (David) is an author of open source tools which help reviewers find vulnerabilities in mobile applications and has to correct the original author on this point. In addition to my own tools others exist: in fact there is a Live CD called the ARE (Android Reverse Engineering) VM which was created solely to allow people to security review/test Android applications and established commercial offerings from the likes of Veracode.

Chickowski also states that no secure coding guidelines for mobile applications exist: OWASP have a mobile security project which is very useful and will only get better over time. The OWASP project includes iGoat and GoatDroid: insecure apps for the iPhone and Android respectively that developers can use to understand what vulnerable code looks like and how to detect and fix security problems on those mobile platforms.

Both Apple and Android have good secure development documentation. The Apple “Introduction to Secure Coding” document has been around since 2006 with guidance for iOS development added in 2008. Apple’s World-Wide Developer Conference (WWDC) includes multiple sessions on application security; these sessions are freely available to registered developers. Google has produced similar guidance as part of their development reference site so to say no guidance exists and that Apple and Google have only just started to think about needs to be corrected. In fact any one who spends a small amount of time researching the architecture of those platforms (as well as others including WP7) will understand that security has been a consideration pretty much since day one.

The final point we want to pick up from the article is the following line: “Rapid and Agile Development causes changes to happen in very short iterations, thus security gets overlooked and becomes a nice thing to do but rarely gets done.” This is certainly not a mobile specific issue and as people who work in a company where we have security integrated throughout an Agile process, we can tell you the security deliverables in SDLC don’t really change much. Sure it means you have to do security testing and reviews more often but that doesn’t mean security should be, or always is overlooked. You can try to blame developers, you can even try to place the blame at the door of security professionals but if the business doesn’t want to produce secure code there is very little those people can do.

So what’s actually behind the apparent lack of security practice among mobile app developers? We see a clue in the fact that Chickowski’s article was published at a security news site, not at a site for mobile developers. Security practitioners telling each other how apps fail at security can be entertaining and make for good conversation in the bars at conferences, but we need to engage the people making the apps if we want to effect change in the way those apps are made. Developers, project managers and executive officers need to be able to evaluate the risk that they are exposing their customers and their businesses to. They need to know how to measure the security posture of their apps and to make decisions on what changes to make, feeding those decisions into the same process they use to prioritise features and bug fixes. In short, we need to help developers to get this right, not call them out when they get it wrong,

David Rook (@securityninja) is the Application Security Lead at Realex Payments.

Graham Lee (@iamleeg) is the Smartphone Security Boffin at O2 Labs.

About Graham

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2 Responses to Some LightReading about mobile app security

  1. Jeffrey Walton says:

    Nice counter-point.

    Links to the mobile security tools authored by security ninja would be a good addition to the article (I’m always on the lookout).

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