Mobile Code Security

Improve the Security of Your Mobile Applications

Mobile App and Mobile Code Security Risks

There are two main categories of mobile code security risks: (1) malicious functionality and (2) vulnerabilities.

The category of malicious functionality is a list of unwanted and dangerous mobile code behaviors that are stealthily placed in a Trojan app that the user is tricked into installing. Users think they are installing a game or utility and instead get hidden spyware, phishing UI or unauthorized premium dialing.

Malicious Functionality

  1. Activity monitoring and data retrieval
  2. Unauthorized dialing, SMS and payments
  3. Unauthorized network connectivity (exfiltration or command & control)
  4. UI impersonation
  5. System modification (rootkit, APN proxy config)
  6. Logic or time bomb

The category of mobile security vulnerabilities are errors in design or implementation that expose the mobile device data to interception and retrieval by attackers. Mobile code security vulnerabilities can also expose the mobile device or the cloud applications used from the device to unauthorized access.


  1. Sensitive data leakage (inadvertent or side channel)
  2. Unsafe sensitive data storage
  3. Unsafe sensitive data transmission
  4. Hardcoded password/keys

The Mobile Code Security Stack

Increasing smartphone adoption rates coupled with the rapid growth in smartphone application counts have created a scenario where private and sensitive information is being pushed to the new device perimeter at an alarming rate. The smartphone mobile device is quickly becoming ubiquitous. While there is much overlap with common operating system models, the mobile device code security model has some distinct points of differentiation.

The mobile code security stack can be broken up into four distinct layers. The lowest layer of the stack is the infrastructure layer, followed upward by the hardware, operating system and application layers. These security stack layers each define a separate section of the security model of a smartphone or mobile device.

Each layer of the mobile code security model is responsible for the security of its defined components and nothing more. The upper layers of the stack rely on all lower layers to ensure that their components are appropriately safe. This abstraction-based model allows the design of a particular mobile security mechanism to focus on a single specific area of concern without expending the resources required to analyze all layers that support its current location within the stack.
Mobile Security Stack

Mobile Security - Infrastructure Layer

The infrastructure layer is the lowest and thus most supportive layer of the mobile code security stack. This layer is the foundation that supports all of the other tiers of the model. The majority of the functional components at this layer are owned and operated by a mobile carrier or infrastructure provider; however, integration into the handset occurs as data is transmitted from this tier upward.

Cellular voice and data carriers operate the infrastructure that carries all data and voice communications from end point to end point. The security of components at this level typically encompasses the protocols in use by the carriers and infrastructure providers themselves. Examples of such protocols include code division multiple access protocol (CDMA), global system for mobile communications (GSM), global positions systems (GPS), short messaging systems (SMS) and multimedia messaging systems (MMS). Due to the low foundational nature of this particular security tier, flaws or vulnerabilities discovered at this tier are generally effective across multiple platforms, multiple carriers and multiple handset providers.

Mobile Security - Hardware Layer

As we move up the stack to the second tier of the mobile code security stack, we are moving into the realm of a physical unit that is typically under the direct control of an end user. The hardware layer is identified by the individual end user premise equipment, generally in the form of a smartphone or tablet style mobile device. The hardware layer is accessible to the operating system, allowing for direct control of the physical components of the unit. This hardware is generally called the “firmware” and is upgraded by the physical manufacturer of the handset and occasionally delivered by proxy through the phone carrier. Security flaws or vulnerabilities discovered at this layer typically affect all end users who use a particular piece of hardware or individual hardware component. If a hardware flaw is discovered in a single manufacturer’s device, it is more than likely that all hardware revisions using that similar design and/or chip will be affected as well.

Mobile Security - Operating System Layer

The third tier in the mobile code security stack is the operating system layer. This layer corresponds to the software running on a device that allows communications between the hardware and the application tiers. The operating system is periodically updated with feature enhancements, patches and security fixes, which may or may not coincide with patches made to the firmware by the physical handset manufacturer. The operating system provides access to its resources via the publishing of application programming interfaces. These resources are available to be consumed by the application layer as it is the only layer higher in the stack than the operating system itself. Simultaneously, the operating system communicates with the hardware/firmware to run processes and pass data to and from the device.

Operating system flaws are a very common flaw type and currently tend to be the target of choice for attackers that wish to have a high impact. If an operating system flaw is discovered, the entire installed base of that particular operating system revision will likely be vulnerable. It is at this layer, and above, where software is the overriding enforcement mechanism for security. Specifically due to the fact that software is relied upon, the operating system, and the application layer above, is the most common location where security flaws are discovered.

Mobile Security - Application Layer

The application tier resides at the top of the mobile security stack and is the layer that the end user directly interfaces with. The application layer is identified by running processes that utilize application programming interfaces provided by the operating system layer as an entry point into the rest of the stack.

Application layer security flaws generally result from coding flaws in applications that are either shipped with or installed onto a mobile device after deployment. These flaws come in classes that are similar to the personal computing area. Buffer overflows, insecure storage of sensitive data, improper cryptographic algorithms, hardcoded passwords and backdoored applications are only a sample set of application layer flaw classes. The result of exploitation of application layer security flaws can range from elevated operating system privilege to exfiltration of sensitive data.

How to Test for Mobile Code Security

When analyzing an individual device for security implications, take into account each of the layers of the mobile code security stack and determine the effectiveness of the security mechanisms that are in place. At each layer, determine what, if any, security mechanisms and mitigations the manufacturer has implemented and if those mechanisms are sufficient for the type of data you plan to store and access on the device.

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