Access for All: 6 Common Design Flaws in Mobile Apps that Create Security Risks

by Mark Stephens
Common Apps Flaws That Create Security Risks

Consumer behavior is constantly evolving. Now, in the wake of the pandemic, habits have changed even further—and faster. With every year that passes, mobile app usage grows exponentially. This means that companies from every field need to revisit the functionality and security of their apps if they want to match the pace of consumer demands.

Unfortunately, as the mobile app industry increases in size and innovation, so does the technology designed to exploit and corrupt it.

A 2020 report by Mobile Security Index found that 43% of mobile app companies sacrificed high-level security for other features. This resulted in 39% of those companies falling prey to a security breach. Seemingly, despite the fact that mobile security is a major and constantly evolving cause for concern, companies are still refusing to take the necessary preventative measures.

In this article, we are going to be looking at some of the most common security-related design flaws found in mobile apps in 2021:

  • Inadequate Session Handling
  • Broken Encryptions
  • Poor Authentication and Authorization Features
  • Unintended Data Leakage
  • Insecure Data Storage
  • Poor Server-Side Controls

Recent studies indicate that we are dealing with an increasingly high level of mobile app security risks. Therefore, implementing tools to counter common security leaks is becoming a much more important aspect of app development than the industry initially anticipated.

Anyone working with app development needs to regularly refresh their understanding of current security breach trends. In doing this, they can help to mitigate predictable damages, uphold a trustworthy reputation and remain at the forefront of their industry.

Let’s discuss how you can do that.

3 Main Different Types of Mobile Security Threats

Before we dive into the details about which design fatalities you may be unknowingly committing, let’s go through the four main different types of mobile-related security threats.

  1. Mobile Device Security Threats—This pertains to the physical security of a mobile device. In the event of it getting stolen, any information stored on it becomes vulnerable if it’s not properly protected.   
  2. Mobile Network Security Threats—If someone is operating their mobile device on an open or unsecured public Wi-Fi network, cybercriminals can easily access unencrypted data. 
  3. Web-Based Security Threats—This subtle and often unnoticed threat refers to the risk of users unintentionally downloading malicious content onto their device from the web. The malware that enters their device can compromise the functionality and security of their data and your mobile app.

Being aware of the various different ways in which your mobile app (and its users) might be vulnerable to exploitation is the first step you can take towards preventing them from occurring.

Even though some of the above types of security threats may not be within your control, finding ways to protect your app from them is.

Design Flaws in Mobile App Development You Might Be Making 

Design flaws are weak points within your application system that make it vulnerable to threats such as cyberattacks, data leakage or malware corruption.

In an age with technology that advances on a near daily basis, nobody can afford to omit learning how to pre-empt, identify and fix flaws such as these.

Access for All: 6 Common Design Flaws in Mobile Apps that Create Security Risks
Image Credit: https://unsplash.com/photos/G8hZSrC0uB0

1. Inadequate Session Handling

Inadequate session handling refers to a lax or improper handling of the user session timeout feature. When a user logs into their account, there is often a session timer that allows them to remain logged in without needing to re-enter their account details.

Many e-commerce apps tend to want to make these activity sessions as long as possible to amplify user convenience and encourage more purchases.

However, if the device gets stolen, whoever accesses the phone won’t need to have any prior knowledge of the user’s login information before accessing the app. They also have access to any other private data stored on the device.

2. Broken Encryptions

Broken cryptography is a commonly occurring flaw in many of today’s mobile apps. When the encryption applied to an app is badly implemented, it exposes the system to any cybercriminal smart enough to poke holes in it. This is essentially a green flag for easy access if you possess the knowledge and technology capable of simple hacking.

Implementing a solid, no-nonsense encryption code into your mobile app is paramount to its overall security.

3. Poor Authentication and Authorization Features

Weak authentication requirements can open the door wide for anonymous adversaries to operate the backend server of a device or the mobile app itself. Differently to traditional web-based apps, mobile apps do not necessarily expect users to remain online during sessions.

Because of this, the app may have an offline authentication option that allows users to extend their session time, without actually connecting to the internet. While this may seem like an accommodating app feature, it presents an easy loophole for adversaries to enter.

As long as they can brute force their way through the basic security logins (which is not an uncommon cybercriminal practice) during the offline mode, they can then make operations towards the backend of the app and manipulate the data they find however they want.

4. Unintended Data Leakage

This term refers to the storage of important personal and app data stored at insecure locations of the device. Data is sometimes stored in parts of the device that are accessible to other users or apps, leaving that data needlessly under-protected and vulnerable to extraction.

Some common leakage points include caching, application backgrounding, logging, browser cookie objects and HTML5 data storage. Leakage is often the result of security-negligent framework or OS bugs that deteriorate security.

5. Insecure Data Storage

Where unintended data leakage is often more a result of bugs or shoddy framework that sits outside of the developer’s control, insecure data storage is a similar problem that developers have some control over.

Often, developers will rely on the user’s own device storage as a location for storing user data. But most mobile devices have limited capacity and or weak security around that capacity.

In the event of an adversary acquiring the device, that private information can be used for numerous exploitative issues. Identity theft, external policy violation (PCI), and reputation damage are just a few possibilities.

6. Poor Server Side Controls

All communication that occurs between an app and a mobile device user happens via a server. Hence, poor regulation over the security of server-side controls becomes a clear target for opportunistic cyber hackers.

As is the case with so many of the above design flaws, this issue is commonly the result of small security budgets or a lack of understanding around how mobile app security works.

In the event of the latter, hiring a cyber expert to guide you through the process of setting up a solid and resilient security system would be a decision that benefits your company greatly.

Security Features to Include in Your Mobile App

Now that you know which design flaws and security liabilities to avoid in the development of your mobile app, it’s time to review some useful features you can implement that will strengthen it.

Studies show that consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the dangers involved with installing an insecure app on their mobile device. So, making sure that your security features are up to scratch will only become more important over time.

1. Integrity Checks and Data Validation

When it comes to identity validation and authorisation, your app needs to be frequent and thorough. Require regular integrity checks by implementing a short, online-only session timeout schedule that asks the user to input their login details every time it expires.

2. Sanitize Background Image

Many mobile devices come with a default setting that allows them to push a button and easily scroll through unclosed apps or web pages that were recently opened. They are usually presented as screenshots of the user’s most recent activity on that app or web page.

While this may be convenient for the user at times, it puts all the data stored on those apps or pages at risk. Don’t make a critical mistake and let this happen with your app. Incorporate a feature that uses your logo as a placeholder for the screenshot so that no information can be leaked.

3. Impose Strict Limits on Clipboard Access

Clipboard data can hold a long history of text that users will not even necessarily remember putting there. Cybercriminals will always check the clipboard history of a device they acquire. Avoid potential exploitation of data by restricting the ability for your app to store data on clipboards.

4. Test Your App for Vulnerabilities

Before you even think about releasing your new mobile app into the hands of users, perform a comprehensive Mobile Penetration test.

In the same way that you’d use a mockup tool to create a working prototype, MPTs simulate a realistic attack on your app. They test for weaknesses and points of insecurity so that end users don’t have any risks imposed upon their privacy.

Access for All: 6 Common Design Flaws in Mobile Apps that Create Security Risks
Image Credit: https://www.pxfuel.com/en/free-photo-oegsj

Why Security is Critical to the Success of Your Mobile App

We are in the information age, and that means people with both good and bad intentions have all the tools necessary for doing what they will. Consumer apps were downloaded over 204 billion times in 2019, and that figure is estimated to reach 258 billion by 2022.

The popularity of mobile app usage clearly isn’t going anywhere. It’s therefore up to companies and people like you to stay one step ahead of the game. App devs need to enforce systems that seek to protect privacy, secure personal data and inspire innovation wherever possible.

Image Credit: Featured Image, PxFuel

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