Increasing Importance of Mobile Makes Malware a Priority

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Asma Zubair

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In August, Google pulled more than 500 apps from its Play store, after a security firm warned that the mobile applications had incorporated an advertising library, called lgexin, that could download malicious plugins. Unfortunately, the action came after the apps had been downloaded by users more than 100 million times.

The incident underscores that even a minor success can quickly have a major impact when the mobile ecosystem is so pervasive. Google and Apple have put phenomenal effort into vetting the apps in their stores, but malware developers and criminals are increasingly targeting mobile platforms.

Mobile devices have become the keystone in our digital lives — holding our data, allowing access to a variety of capabilities, and gathering information on what we do. Even with only limited privileges, malicious software can do significant damage to people's digital lives.

The threat to business is even greater. Because digital businesses run on apps, the threat of mobile malware exposes them to risks on two fronts — from the compromised devices of customers and those of workers. Businesses have to protect their customers from attackers looking to gain access to the customers’ accounts while protecting themselves against inside attacks powered by intruders hitching a ride inside the network defenses through a mobile app.

Recent data underscore the problems. Smartphones accounted for 72 percent of all infections detected by Nokia in the first three quarters of 2017 on the 100 million devices the company monitored by its security solution, far outpacing Windows computers, which accounted for the other 28 percent. While the monthly infection rate for devices is only 0.68 percent, that can quickly grow when a major threat, such as the lgexin library, is successful or when users get apps from third-party app stores, which tend to have more lax security requirements.

And while vulnerabilities in applications and Trojan horses can be deleted, the operating system software for most smartphones is rarely updated. Patching is hard, so there are still a lot of vulnerable devices out there, which means that — even when a problem is discovered — it is not going get better overnight.

The long-term onus is on companies that drive the ecosystem, such as Google and Apple. In markets where third-party app stores are popular, those providers need to step up their security, as malware encounters in those markets are far more likely than in the Google and Apple stores.

Yet, companies need to focus on keeping their own code secure. Vulnerable application released to app stores can be used by attackers to spread malware. In addition to hurting customers, such attacks damage the business’s brand.

For that reason, developers need to be more aware that unknown sources of code libraries and components are a threat to their apps and users. While malicious developers are a problem for app-store providers, many developers are unwitting users of libraries that have malicious functionality. Testing services that check source code for vulnerabilities and builds a manifest of the libraries included in the application will help developers stay on top of their third-party code.

For individuals and businesses, the scale of the problem can be contained if they take enough precautions. Data should be backed up to avoid its total loss. Employees and customers should be educated on what behavior should be deemed suspicious and only install apps from trusted sources. Any connected devices should be regularly updated, and proactively monitored to ensure that rogue applications have not compromised the devices. In addition, companies should focus on detecting anomalous behavior among their users and employees.

In the end, businesses can't trust that their mobile devices are secure and have not been compromised, so it's in their best interest to fortify their high value apps with additional security precautions from the inside out.

These steps will blunt the impact of attacks in the short term, allowing companies to respond to any malware outbreak before it causes widespread damage.

About the author: Asma Zubair is a senior director of product management at Arxan. As a seasoned security product management leader, she has also lead teams at WhiteHat Security, The Find (Facebook) and Yahoo!

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