Enhancing Mobile App Security in an Era of Cyber Espionage

mobile-cyber-espionage
We live in an era of unparalleled digital transformation where mobile applications can provide us with virtually any functionality, from checking stock prices to booking airline tickets. However, at the same time, this digital landscape has also been unaccompanied by an equally unparalleled rise in cyber threats.

The 2023 Cyber Threat Overview by the French National Cybersecurity Agency (ANSSI) highlights a disturbing trend of how mobile devices are being targeted for industrial and strategic cyber espionage.

As cybercriminals employ increasingly sophisticated techniques to undermine security measures – one conclusion is clear for businesses worldwide: neither the device nor the operating system can be fully trusted. It is thus time for a shift in perspective – where the focus changes from assuming security within the device and the underlying operating system to focusing on self-protection within the mobile apps themselves. In this article, we will explore these pressing issues while providing insights into the ANSSI report and practical recommendations for enhancing mobile security.

The Modern Threat Landscape


The attack surface that the devices and mobile app provides has always proven to be challenging for businesses to secure. As per ANSSI’s 2023 Cyber Threat Overview attackers are leveraging vulnerabilities within these devices to carry out industrial and strategic espionage. The source of these attacks may range from nation-state actors to sophisticated cybercriminal gangs able to deploy advanced malware easily. 

The report highlights the presence of malware like BlastPass, Triangulation, Reign, and Predator— malicious attacks designed to infiltrate mobile devices. These attacks are also highly focused on exploiting zero-day vulnerabilities within mobile devices, exfiltrating data, and avoiding detection. Given the high sensitivity of the data they handle, this can be devastating for businesses, especially within critical sectors like banking, energy, healthcare, and government.

For example, consider a hypothetical scenario of a mobile app used within the financial sector that stores transaction histories, including customer information, amounts, and timestamps, directly on the device for easy retrieval.

An exploit in the mobile device’s operating system allows attackers to access this stored data. The breach compromises user financial data and erodes trust in the bank’s mobile app, leading to a loss of customers and potential regulatory penalties.

Mobile devices can prove a challenge to secure, given their usage on insecure public Wi-Fi networks and how they are used for both personal and professional activities. This blend of factors allows attackers to gain more insights into a person or their business activities if compromised. It also highlights the need for mobile app controls that go beyond the traditional measures of device and underlying operating systems security. 

The Need for “Self-Protecting” Mobile Apps


The grim landscape highlighted by the ANSSI’s findings necessitates a shift in how mobile applications are developed, deployed, and secured, with a focus on self-protection. That is, the mobile app should not depend on the device or the OS for its security but instead have controls that are integrated into its very functionality. 

This concept of self-protecting apps represents a radical shift in how mobile apps have been traditionally secured, giving them the ability to be secure regardless of whether the device or the OS has been breached. The mobile app does not take the security or integrity of the device / OS for granted and instead focuses on the following key strategies: 

Data Encryption


Another key control is data encryption within dynamic memory (data in transit) and static (data at rest). Encryption can be a key control and serve as the last line of defence even if attackers access the data in an unauthorised manner. The data cannot be deciphered, making it effectively useless to cybercriminals. Industry-standard protocols like AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) for data at rest and TLS (Transport Layer Security) for data in transit can be utilised and regularly updated based on industry best practices.

Minimal Data Storage


By minimising the amount of data stored within the device, mobile apps can significantly reduce the impact of any compromise. Attackers cannot steal what is not present on the device; this privacy-by-design principle significantly decreases the mobile application’s attack surface. 

Data Encryption


Another key control is data encryption within dynamic memory (data in transit) and static (data at rest). Encryption can be a key control and serve as the last line of defence even if attackers access the data in an unauthorised manner. The data cannot be deciphered, making it effectively useless to cybercriminals. Industry-standard protocols like AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) for data at rest and TLS (Transport Layer Security) for data in transit can be utilised and regularly updated based on industry best practices. 

AI-enhanced Security


AI is rapidly becoming vital to any security strategy, and with mobile apps security there is no difference. AI can be crucial in identifying whether a device has been compromised. AI can also detect anomalies that may indicate a security breach by continually analysing an app’s environment and user behaviour. This allows for proactive responses to threats before they become a data breach. 

At the core of Build38’s innovation is its AI-powered threat intelligence engine. This cutting-edge system processes real-time security telemetry data, extracting valuable insights to identify potential threats. Notably, minimising false positives, ensuring that application interruptions are kept to a minimum and preserving a positive customer experience.

“By harnessing the power of AI and adaptive security profiles, we are empowering organisations to defend against sophisticated threats without compromising the user experience.”


A few practical examples of AI security include:

  • Device Integrity Checks: Machine Learning can monitor device behaviours and configurations to identify signs of rooting or jailbreaking that often indicate a cyberattack.

  • Anomaly Detection: By creating a baseline of normal user behaviours, AI can flag unusual activities, such as failed login attempts or unexpected data exfiltration, which might suggest a security breach.
These are just a few of the strategies that businesses can adopt for developing self-protecting mobile apps that can withstand even the most sophisticated cyberattacks. In today’s threat landscape, these controls are no longer a luxury but a key strategic requirement to maintain customer trust and competitive advantage. 

Challenges and Considerations

As businesses embark on their journey, they must consider a few factors to maintain a balance between security and productivity. Some of the key areas are: 

  • Balancing security controls with the user experience (UX). For example,  aggressive data minimization and robust encryption, can impact the app’s performance and have an impact on latency. Similarly, minimal data storage might require frequent data fetching that could degrade performance. 

  • Integrating AI capabilities for detecting compromised devices requires vast amounts of data to learn and create a baseline of “normal behaviour.” This may raise questions about privacy and data protection compliance.

  • The dynamic nature of cyber threats also requires mobile app security to be a continuous process, not a one-time activity that may require a cultural shift within organisations to prioritise security as a fundamental core principle. 
For these challenges to be met and addressed, C-level executives must play a pivotal role in championing the cause of mobile app security, allocating the necessary resources, and fostering a culture of security awareness. 

Let Build38 protect your Mobile Apps


As demonstrated by the ANSSI’s findings, the Mobile App landscape is fraught with new security challenges that require a strategic rethink of how Mobile Apps are secured. Mobile app security is not just an IT issue but a business one, affecting everything from customer trust and brand reputation to regulatory compliance and financial stability. 

Security controls such as encryption, advanced detection and response capabilities, data protection, and secure coding tools must become a standard part of the Mobile App security stack; however, technology alone is not enough. C-level executives must steer their companies toward a future where Mobile Apps are user-friendly and self-protecting sandboxes against the ever-present threat of cyber espionage and cybercrime.

Reach out to us and schedule a consultation with our team of Mobile Application security experts and discover effective solutions to elevate the security of your Mobile Applications.

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