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Strengthening Mobile App Security:
Defense in Depth with MAST & RASP

Strengthening Mobile App Security: Defense in Depth with MAST & RASP

Vijay Pawar | August 25, 2023

Vijay Pawar

August 25, 2023

In today’s digital landscape, mobile applications have become integral for both personal and corporate life. However, this increased reliance on mobile apps has also attracted the attention of malicious actors seeking to exploit vulnerabilities and steal sensitive data. In response, organizations must adopt a multi-layered security approach known as “defense in depth.” This strategy involves employing various security tools to fortify mobile applications and safeguard against attacks and data breaches. In this blog, we will delve into two crucial components of defense in depth: Mobile Application Security Testing (MAST) and Runtime Application Self-Protection (RASP).

Mobile Application Security Testing

MAST is a proactive approach that involves identifying and addressing security vulnerabilities and weaknesses in mobile applications before and after they are published to the app stores. MAST operates in the pre-deployment and post-deployment phase and is pivotal for ensuring apps are built with security in mind from the outset. Key features of MAST include:

  • Vulnerability Scanning: MAST tools automate scans to uncover common security flaws such as insecure data storage, weak authentication mechanisms, and insecure communication channels.
  • Static and Dynamic Analysis: MAST tools perform both static and dynamic analysis to identify potential vulnerabilities in the app’s source code and its behavior during execution. Additionally, these tools can scrutinize third-party libraries for potential vulnerabilities.
  • Continuity: MAST eliminates human error (omission, knowledge gaps) allowing organizations to turn mobile security testing into a continuous process that easily integrates into modern software development pipelines.

Implementing MAST into the Software Development Life Cycle (SDLC) allows developers to address security concerns early in the development process—a practice commonly referred to as “shift left security.” This proactive approach reduces the chances of vulnerabilities making their way into the final product.

Runtime Application Self-Protection

RASP is a security technology that operates within the runtime environment of a mobile application. It’s designed to identify and thwart security threats and attacks in real-time while the app is running. By being integrated directly into the application code or server, RASP offers several key features that bolster mobile app security:

  • Real-time Protection: RASP actively monitors the app’s behavior during runtime and can instantly respond to potential threats. It can detect and block attacks such as SQL injection and code injection attempts, minimizing the window of vulnerability.
  • Self-Awareness: RASP gains access to the app’s internal context, enabling it to detect abnormal behaviors based on the app’s established usage patterns. This heightened awareness allows it to identify threats that might go unnoticed by traditional security measures.
  • Low False Positives: Operating within the application’s runtime environment enables RASP to make more accurate decisions about distinguishing between genuinely malicious activities and normal application behavior. This minimizes disruptions caused by false positives.

RASP is particularly effective against zero-day vulnerabilities and advanced attacks, adapting dynamically to an app’s unique security requirements. It adds an essential layer of protection that complements traditional security measures.

MAST and RASP can be used for in-house developed applications, however, for 3rd party apps from the App Stores with no access to source code, the organization can only use a MAST solution.

Synergy Between RASP and MAST

Both RASP and MAST play distinctive roles in enhancing mobile app security, and their combined use can form a robust defense in depth strategy. RASP focuses on real-time protection during the app’s runtime, responding promptly to threats that arise post-deployment. On the other hand, MAST concentrates on identifying vulnerabilities during the development phase, preventing security issues from being baked into the app in the first place. For effective mobile app security, organizations should implement MAST to catch most (if not all) the security issues and then add RASP for further security.

Example 1: Addressing Weak Encryption

RASP: Let’s consider a scenario where a mobile application employs inadequate encryption mechanisms to safeguard sensitive user data. This weak encryption approach introduces a fundamental vulnerability within the app’s security architecture. While RASP can certainly enhance the app’s defense by adding layers of protection to obscure this weakness, it is important to note that RASP does not eradicate the root cause of the vulnerability itself.

Operating within the app’s runtime environment, RASP can detect and disrupt various attack attempts that exploit the weak encryption. For instance, it can thwart attempts to decipher encrypted data through brute-force or cryptographic attacks. By doing so, RASP elevates the security posture of the application by mitigating specific attack vectors that target the encryption’s shortcomings. However, it’s crucial to recognize that RASP’s intervention does not address the core issue of inadequate encryption.

MAST: On the other hand MAST takes a proactive stance by identifying and rectifying vulnerabilities like weak encryption during the development phase. Imagine that MAST tools perform a comprehensive analysis of the app’s source code and encryption implementation. This analysis reveals the use of weak encryption algorithms and practices, highlighting the fundamental vulnerability.

By pinpointing the root cause, MAST empowers developers to replace weak encryption with robust cryptographic methods before the app is even deployed. This preemptive approach eliminates the vulnerability at its source and ensures that sensitive user data is adequately protected from potential breaches.

Example 2: Preventing Injection Attacks

RASP: Imagine a mobile app that processes user inputs without proper validation, making it susceptible to SQL injection attacks. RASP can actively monitor the app’s runtime behavior and detect patterns indicative of SQL injection attempts. It can then intervene and prevent the malicious SQL queries from being executed, safeguarding the database and preventing unauthorized data access.

MAST: During the development phase, MAST tools can perform static analysis on the app’s source code to identify potential vulnerabilities related to user input handling. By flagging and correcting insecure coding practices, such as lack of input validation, MAST helps eliminate the root cause of the vulnerability before the app is deployed. This preemptive approach ensures that the app’s codebase is resistant to injection attacks. Our Q-MAST solution leverages years of intelligence to catch such attacks by using techniques such as null fuzzing, forced path execution which sometimes are not preventable even by a RASP. Q-MAST helps detect and provide remediation for such kinds of attacks.

Example 3: Mitigating Insecure Data Storage

RASP: If a mobile app stores sensitive user data in plaintext or uses weak encryption methods, it becomes an attractive target for attackers looking to exfiltrate confidential information. RASP can detect unauthorized attempts to access the data storage, whether it’s a file or a database. It can enforce encryption requirements, ensuring that stored data remains protected, even if the app’s encryption mechanisms are weak.

MAST: MAST tools can scan the app’s source code and configurations to identify instances of insecure data storage practices. By detecting vulnerabilities related to data handling, MAST helps developers implement robust encryption and secure storage mechanisms from the outset. This proactive approach prevents sensitive data from being compromised due to poor storage practices. MAST helps ensure that such attacks are plugged even before the apps are published by greatly reducing any attack surface exposed by weak programming or vulnerabilities.

Example 4: Guarding Against Malicious Third-Party Libraries

RASP: Mobile apps often rely on third-party libraries to streamline development. However, if these libraries have vulnerabilities, attackers can exploit them to compromise the app’s security. RASP can monitor the behavior of these libraries during runtime, identifying any suspicious activities or unauthorized interactions that may indicate a compromise. It can then isolate or block the library’s functionality to prevent the exploitation of vulnerabilities.

MAST: During the development process, MAST tools can conduct both static and dynamic analysis of third-party libraries integrated into the app. By identifying vulnerabilities in these libraries, MAST allows developers to make informed decisions about whether to use them or seek alternatives. This proactive assessment prevents potentially compromised libraries from being included in the app, reducing the attack surface. MAST goes further than just analyzing libraries, where Quokka’s Q-MAST being able to understand application collusion. App collusion is where a library exposed by one app is used by another application to exfiltrate data about the user or the device.

Example 5: Countering Man-in-the-Middle Attacks

RASP: A mobile app communicating over insecure channels is susceptible to man-in-the-middle (MitM) attacks, where an attacker intercepts and manipulates the data exchanged between the app and the server. RASP can detect anomalous network behavior, such as unexpected data interceptions or unauthorized SSL certificate changes. It can then terminate the connection or alert users about potential threats.

MAST: MAST tools can scan the app’s source code and configurations to identify vulnerabilities related to insecure communication channels. By ensuring that the app implements secure communication protocols and proper certificate validation, MAST helps prevent MitM attacks from being effective. This proactive approach ensures that the app’s network interactions are resistant to interception and manipulation. MAST is embedded during the development process and has great insights to attack vectors like MitM and provide effective guidance on a app-by-app basis thus effectively driving the highest level of threat detection and remediation.

This is analogous to home security where MAST is the home security expert that gives you guidance to ensure you have good locks on doors, windows and a home monitoring system. This is done by reviewing each home and customizing the security guidance. Once in place you will then additionally want a monitoring system that detects break-ins or tries to circumvent the home security. This is similar to RASP which can raise an alarm. Like any home security system, you ensure your locks are in place with MAST and add on a monitoring system for best home defense.

Implementing RASP & MAST

By incorporating both RASP and MAST into a mobile app security strategy, organizations can bolster their defense mechanisms. RASP provides continuous real-time protection, while MAST ensures that apps are built securely, preventing vulnerabilities from taking root in the first place. This comprehensive approach helps safeguard sensitive data, enhance user trust, and maintain the integrity of mobile applications in an ever-evolving threat landscape.

As mobile applications continue to transform the way we interact with technology, their security becomes paramount. Implementing a defense in depth strategy with tools like MAST and RASP is essential for organizations aiming to safeguard against attacks, data breaches, and emerging threats. By leveraging the strengths of both MAST and RASP, organizations can create a resilient security posture that ensures the longevity and reliability of their mobile applications. While RASP can provide additional layers of protection to obscure weaknesses, MAST helps identify and eliminate fundamental vulnerabilities at an early stage, fostering a robust and holistic security approach. Quokka provides Q-MAST, a government grade mobile application testing solution and also partners with TALSEC for RASP.

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