Mobile Security Attacks – A Glimpse from the Trenches (OWASP AppSec USA 2014 Preso Review)

AppSecUSA.2014At the recent OWASP AppSecUSA in Denver, Yair Amit and Adi Sharabani of Skycure presented a very informative overview of mobile security issues. There was a great deal of good material in this presentation, packed into a short period of time.

The presenters divided the attacks into four overlapping areas:

  • Physical Security
  • Network
  • Application Security & Privacy
  • Malware

Physical Layer

The problem here is obvious: the device is lost or stolen, or temporarily accessed by a non-authorized user. In these cases, the responsibility has fallen on the OS for protection. With stolen devices in particular, the opportunities for controlling loss are greatly reduced, as the thief will intentionally disable internet access, which is required for many of those protective mechanisms to work.

Network Attacks

The presenters estimate that 10% of “scanned networks” (presumably wifi) pose some sort of threat, and that the likelihood of encountering such a network is 40% over a period of four months, with that number increasing with time. They have even put together a real-time mapping of network threats: (Just for fun, I recently entered Los Angeles into the app, and it identified a half dozen clustered in east LA, and one in South Central. Central LA seemed clear, but there were some other threats in Beverly Hills and Westwood. Your mileage may vary.) For more information:

Network Security Implementation Issues

Two network layer implementation issues affecting mobile devices were reviewed: the gotofail bug in iOS, and Heartbleed in Android. The presenters briefly contrasted the updating mechanisms for the two platforms. The good news for iOS is that gotofail could be easily fixed and updated on affected devices, as iOS is a single platform that is updated by the vast majority of users in short order. The less good news for Android is that updating is more difficult due to platform fragmentation. Since Heartbleed is really more of a server concern and is hard to exploit on a device, the lack of updatability was not too troubling in this case.

Network Security General Design Issues

This portion of the presentation focused on design issues of the more general “protocol” varieties (i.e. not mobile device specific).


The first design flaw examined was the five year old sslstrip vulnerability. The solution, HSTS, is only present on newer browsers. Older devices have older browsers (presumably especially on harder-to-update Android) that do not support HSTS. In terms of how to address the problem, the difference between this design issue and the implementation bugs above is (presumably) that a server modification is necessary in addition to the device update.

“SSL Decryption”

“SSL decryption” was the second general design issue discussed. By this, the presenters are referring to a man-in-the-middle SSL certificate attack. While this is a general issue and not mobile-specific, the presenters nevertheless focused on the dialog that pops up on iOS devices when there are SSL certificate problems. This dialog allows the user to either cancel or continue with the connection. Of course, “continue” is the wrong choice as it may indicate a man-in-the-middle attack, but they have found that 92% of users choose to continue.

They also suspect that the percentage rises with repetition of the dialog, due to the annoyance (if “cancel” means I keep getting the dialog, then…). If a user clicks “continue” not when loading a web page, but due to a problem communicating with an Exchange server, then credentials are compromised. This can lead to even further compromise, e.g. other accounts by resetting passwords, changing contacts with new phone numbers, etc.

My Ten Agorot (or two cents, hey, the presenters are Israeli…)

The presenters did not describe how this SSL certificate problem is handled on Android, which would have been interesting to hear. Neither did the presenters explore possible solutions to this problem, such as future versions of mobile OS that might have a setting to automatically always disallow certificate mismatches.


The third general design vulnerability is the Karma wifi auto-connect attack.

My Two Cents

This warranted only a brief mention with practically no discussion at all. Probably the omission was due to time, as there has been a lot of content disseminated on this already, and more recent mobile OS versions have been updated to prevent the attack from working. For more information, see it in action using our favorite hacking device, the WiFi Pinapple (

Network Security Mobile Design Issues

iOS Configuration Profiles

The combination of having one app store with a lot of screening and the sandbox model do make iOS a relatively secure platform. However, there is a rather significant attack vector available for iOS: “configuration profiles.” These are XML files that allow IT departments to configure iOS devices for specific network purposes. They are very powerful, affecting the entire device, and they bypass all of the aforementioned security mechanisms, making them attractive not only for legitimate use, but also for attackers. They can do some potentially very nasty things, such as redirect traffic and install root certificates! And all it takes is a tap by the user. A web site can be crafted to make such an attack look entirely legitimate, when in fact a Trojan is what is being offered. The presenters put together an example configuration profile attack that worked as a key logger as well as a device keyboard controller. It looks like complete control of the device may be possible including launching and controlling apps!

These attacks do exist in the wild, and they are aware of cases where even legitimate configuration profiles were somehow hijacked by malicious actors. Further, some of the attacks are then spread virally, by sending messages through email and social networking to the victim’s contacts to entice them to also install the malicious configuration profile. For more information:

My Two Cents

This part of the presentation held particular interest for me. When I was at DEFCON earlier this year, I noticed that the conference wifi was provided for iOS devices by means of a configuration profile. Even though I knew nothing about them at the time, it struck me as a risky proposition to install something like this. I demurred, and while I’m sure it was safe enough, I ultimately decided to stick to the cellular network as a (probably) safer option. It was gratifying to see my concerns about configuration profiles validated.


Going back to the Karma attack, mobile device carriers may install pre-defined wifi settings that will result in a device automatically connecting to certain wifi networks, right out of the box. These settings are not user-modifiable, and the devices are vulnerable to a Karma-like attack without the user having to take affirmative steps to connect to anything at all. For more information:

Application Security

As a software engineer in the field of web application scanning, my greatest interest is most clearly in this category, which they characterize as an “emerging threat.”

My Two Cents

Whether they mean mobile web applications or installed mobile applications, this threat has clearly already emerged. Web applications generally have been a primary point of attack since the early 2000’s. Now, installable mobile applications are rapidly being released. What’s worse about these new applications is that they utilize newer technologies, and neither the developer nor security teams have the same experience testing them, nor the tools to do so. So, the risk associated with mobile applications is of great concern. Gartner predicts that through 2015, more than 75% of mobile applications will fail basic security tests. (Gartner Application Security Magic Quadrant, 2014)

Most global enterprises and large organizations have well-established application security programs to detect and resolve application security issues. While we are used to thinking of this as primarily a browser presentation issue, the mobile dimension will increase over time. Some of the “old” vulnerabilities (such as SQL injection) can show up in the web service back-ends for mobile applications. For more on current application security threats and trends, visit

Plain HTTP

Non-encrypted traffic is still a used by some mobile applications (amazingly). No further elaboration is necessary.

Certificate Pinning

Mobile applications can and should be pinned to a specific certificate to work, but according to the presenters, few apps do this, even major ones. This is an astounding security hole, but the poor rate of use is due to pinning being difficult to implement correctly. Specifically, if a certificate must change, due to expiration or compromise, some mechanism must be provided to update the client app.

HTTP Request Hijacking

In an untrusted environment, a man-in-the-middle issues a persistent redirect (301) to a malicious server. This has a permanent effect even when back on a safe network, with the app still contacting the malicious server pointed to by the redirect. This is a cleverly sneaky attack that I will enjoy testing on several apps.


Malicious apps have been more of a problem with Android than with iOS. The “year of Android malware” was 2011, countered by “Bouncer” a year later. Then malware went to other external stores, followed by a focus on “verified apps,” moving Android closer to the iOS security model. Thus malicious applications now are becoming sneakier. The best example given was asking for all keystrokes in exchange for better services! This is possible on Android and iOS 8 with installable keyboards.

NTOBJECTives Relevance

Almost everything in this presentation focused on the client side of the mobile security equation. This is a natural and typical focus for mobile security. But the traffic between a mobile application and a server can be just as vulnerable, and more damaging if breached, to the server side of the equation than to the device side. NTOSpider can be used to scan such sites and web services for vulnerabilities. For example, one of the issues in this presentation touches on server side behavior beyond simply the general use of SSL/TLS: the use of HSTS for preventing the sslstrip attack. NTOSpider detects this header and reports on the lack of its use in conjunction with HTTPS.

For more information on mobile applications and web application scanning see the following content at


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