Applications play a fundamental role in today’s business ecosystems. With demanding customers expecting mobile apps for just about everything, developers try to drive deep engagement with the apps they release. Many companies develop commercial software that they sell to other businesses and consumers. Others create internal business apps to help improve productivity or perform specific functions.
Whatever the use cases for application development in your organization, there is an important commonality—opportunistic threat actors will look for and try to exploit any vulnerabilities they find in your apps. Protecting the integrity of your apps and any sensitive data they interact with doesn’t sound as nice as focusing on innovation and features, but it’s just as important. This article provides a short guide to understanding app hardening, including its benefits and best practices.
What is App Hardening?
App hardening is a set of techniques that modify an application to strengthen it against hacking attempts, such as tampering and reverse engineering. The process draws inspiration from the wider area of systems hardening, which seeks to reduce the existing attack surface of technology infrastructure. In other words, rather than focusing on secure coding practices during development, app hardening takes an already developed application and seeks to reduce its exposure to security vulnerabilities.
Despite increased awareness about the cyber threat landscape and the importance of secure coding practices, most apps get released with inherent security flaws. One study from 2020 found over 75 percent of apps had security flaws. Obviously, not all of these flaws present serious security risks, but the idea of hardening is to minimize the potential avenues threat actors can take to cause malicious harm through security loopholes in apps.
It’s tempting to conclude that only apps serving tightly regulated industries, such as banking or healthcare, really require hardening. But any app that provides potential access to sensitive company or customer data should be hardened, especially when these apps get released into public-facing app stores.
Some of the Basic Methods to consider for App Hardening
Choose Your Obfuscation Methods
Obfuscation techniques attempt to intentionally alter something to make it harder to understand. For applications, this usually means modifying the source code in such a way that the application’s functionality remains the same as intended. However, any hacker conducting an attack on the app can’t figure out what they want to know based on the source code.
Obfuscation makes the challenge of reverse-engineering an app more difficult. Another reason to obfuscate is that the source code itself can be a kind of intellectual property that you might want to protect. Here are some different ways to do it:
- Renaming variables to hide their true purpose
- Altering the layout of the code in a manner that confuses those unfamiliar with it (eg adding comments, manipulating indentation)
- Inserting dummy code that doesn’t impact the app’s underlying logic
- Adding fake conditions or branching statements to a method or function
Obfuscation can complicate debugging or even impact runtime performance (depending on the method used). Still, it’s definitely worth obfuscating any app that runs in untrusted environments or provides access to sensitive data.
The use of debuggers for nefarious purposes is a prime example of how hackers often exploit tools with perfectly legitimate uses for their own malicious aims. Threat actors use debuggers, which detect bugs in code, to reverse engineer an application step by step. Debuggers provide some reliable indicators of how an application works.
Anti-debugging techniques aim to inject special code to detect when an app executes within a debugger and change the app’s behavior if it detects a debugger. These behavioral changes could include randomly crashing, purposefully corrupting certain information, or any other action that stops the threat actor in their tracks.
Protect Against Tampering
Tampering is a huge risk in which threat actors modify code for their own purposes. For example, tampering with a banking app and hijacking it to commit fraud. Sometimes, tampered apps are cloned and redistributed to unsuspecting users.
Tampering protections typically kick in during runtime when the code is being executed. One kind of technique relies on integrity checkers that assess isolated segments of executables at runtime to see if anything has been modified. Potential triggering actions upon tampering detection include shutting down the program or notifying the user about a tampered app.
Jailbreak and Root Detection
Jailbreaking for iOS (or rooting for Android devices) removes security controls and limitations put in place by the original manufacturer. Some users do this to totally customize the look and feel of their smartphones while others want to download apps that aren’t available on official app stores.
Whatever the motivation for gaining root-level access, these actions make any official apps running on such devices inherently less secure. Malicious apps on the same device could access your app, its data, and encryption keys. Modern app hardening calls for rooting and jailbreaking detection to help trigger defensive actions that protect your app and its data.
Application Hardening Benefits
Protect Against Financial Loss
The average cost of a data breach now stands at $4.24 million per incident. These large costs stem largely from fines and lawsuits instigated after a breach incident. Other costs include incident response, such as quarantining a compromised app, documenting findings, and fixing exploited vulnerabilities. Application hardening helps to mitigate the threat of data breaches from app-based attacks and the associated costs of such breaches.
Avoid Reputational Damage
An application getting hacked carries reputational consequences quite apart from the direct financial impact. Even if sensitive data remains untouched, any compromise of an even mildly popular application quickly gets reported on by technology journalists. The reputational impacts include a loss of trust by current users or purchasing hesitancy among potential prospects.
Safeguard User Information
Any business that collects and stores sensitive user information via an app has a duty to safeguard this information to the fullest possible extent. Application hardening techniques help protect credit card numbers and other lucrative sources of information that malicious actors set firmly in their sights when trying to attack and exploit applications.
Meet Regulatory Requirements
Some regulatory requirements specifically mandate application hardening. For example, PCI DSS, which protects stored cardholder data, states that “mobile payment-acceptance applications should be hardened to prevent unintended logical access or tampering with the app.”
Is a DIY Approach to App Hardening Enough?
Developers may decide to leverage on various open source tools and techniques to implement Application hardening. But it is important to understand that there are many other run-time attacks like code injection, native code hooks, key logging, etc as well.
YESsafe AppProtect+ secures apps from the inside out against reverse engineering, repackaging, and source code modification no matter what device or environment the app runs in. Core functions include mobile environment detection, source code obfuscation, app integrity protection, Anti-tampering, Anti-fraud, data protection and run-time attack protection. YESsafe AppProtect+ goes beyond typical app hardening to achieve complete protection with detection and response measures.
Contact our team today to learn more about YESsafe AppProtect+