Yishay Yovel directs IBM Security

The Return of the Wild West: Securing Enterprise Mobile Applications Against Evolving Threats

To secure the mobile workforce at the age of BYOD, IT security professionals and line-of-business executives must consider how mobility impacts their business risk profile. The framework proposed in this document looks at the device, the data, the application and the transaction as components of single continuum that must be secured to minimize the business risk associated with mobility. The appropriate mobile security framework will enable enterprises to reap the productivity gains and enhance employee satisfaction while limiting the exposure to their critical information and business assets.

This trend, while positively impacting the user experience, can reduce the ability of the IT department to confidently secure access to data on enterprise systems.The Emerging Mobile Application “Wild West”

Mobile applications, available through online app marketplaces such as Apple’s App Store, Google’s Play Store and third-party marketplaces, are the dominant form of delivering value to users worldwide. Organizations have embraced mobile applications as a way to improve employees’ productivity and align with their new agile and mobile lifestyle.

At the same time, many companies are increasingly adopting Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD) policies to allow employees to meld their personal and professional lives into a single mobile experience. This trend, while positively impacting the user experience, can reduce the ability of the IT department to confidently secure access to data on enterprise systems.

Because of this, it is no longer possible to make assumptions about the underlying security of the mobile device, or the application mix being used on that device. This unknown territory, the so-called “Mobile Wild West,” makes securing the application and its execution an increasingly difficult task.

What follows is a framework to address the creation, deployment and execution of secure mobile applications – thus reducing the business exposure associated with enterprise mobility.

Secure the Code: Building a Secure Application

Mobile malware often taps vulnerabilities or bugs, in the design and coding of mobile applications they target. Once exploited, these vulnerabilities cause unintended behaviors which are used to take over and tamper with the application execution.

Even before vulnerability is exploited, attackers can obtain a public copy of an application and reverse engineer it. Popular applications are repackaged into “rogue apps” containing malicious code and are posted on third-party app stores to lure and trick unsuspecting users to install them and compromise their devices.

Enterprises should look for tools to aid their developers to detect and close security vulnerabilities and then harden their applications against reverse engineering and tampering. However, “consumer apps” still represent a threat as they may not undergo the appropriate hardening process. And as rogue applications, malware and enterprise apps share the same device, the threat is tangible.

Secure the Device: Detecting Compromised and Vulnerable Run-Time Environment

As secure the application is, its security relies on the underlying device security. Jailbroken or rooted devices, or the presence of rogue applications, can represent an execution risk that may be allowed for certain enterprise apps but not for others.

Enterprises should look into ways to dynamically gauge the security of the underlying device. First, the mobile app sandbox (that is prevalent in modern mobile operating system design) must be intact. Rooting or jailbreaking the device breaks the underlying security model and it is highly recommended to restrict these devices from accessing enterprise data. Furthermore, jailbreak technology is evolving rapidly to evade detection – coping with these mechanisms is essential to keeping up with these threats.

Mobile malware, though, doesn’t always rely on the device being jailbroken. Excessive use of permissions to the mobile applications (which are granted by the user, often by default) can provide malware and rogue applications access to basic services (i.e., SMS) used to facilitate fraudulent activities. 

Enterprises should consider up-to-date intelligence sources and application reputation services to track the tidal wave of applications - and their associated risk - as they enter mobile app stores on a daily basis. Using this data, application capabilities could be enabled or disabled based on the device risk profile.

Secure the Data:  Preventing Data Theft and Leakage

When mobile applications access enterprise data, documents and unstructured information are often stored on the device. If the device is lost, or when data is shared with non-enterprise applications, the potential for data loss is heightened.

Many enterprises are already looking into “remote wipe” capabilities to address stolen or lost devices. Mobile data encryption can be used to secure data within the application sandbox against malware and other forms of criminal access. To control application data sharing on the device, individual data elements should be encrypted and controlled. 

Secure the Transaction: Controlling the Execution of High Risk Mobile Transactions

Because mobile applications enable users to transact with enterprise services on the go, the risk tolerance for transactions will vary. For example, reading HR-related content may be deemed low-risk vs. the approval of a large payment to a new supplier.

Organizations should adapt an approach of risk-aware transaction execution that restricts client-side functionality based on policies that consider mobile risk factors such as device security attributes, user location, the security of the network connection, and so on. 

Even when client-side transactions are allowed, enterprise applications can leverage an enterprise mobile risk engine to correlate risk factors such as IP velocity (access to the same account from two locations that are far apart, over a short period of time), user access patterns and data access profile. This approach extends the enterprise’s ability to detect and respond to complex attacks that can span multiple interaction channels and seemingly unrelated security events.

Conclusion

To secure the mobile workforce at the age of BYOD, IT security professionals and line-of-business executives must consider how mobility impacts their business risk profile. The framework proposed in this document looks at the device, the data, the application and the transaction as components of single continuum that must be secured to minimize the business risk associated with mobility. The appropriate mobile security framework will enable enterprises to reap the productivity gains and enhance employee satisfaction while limiting the exposure to their critical information and business assets. 

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