Tuesday, January 22, 2013

How's your 2013 mobile app security fitness coming along?

In my Computerworld column this month, I described how being secure is in some ways similar to being fit. There's good reason why Gunnar (@oneraindrop) and I (@krvw) chose the name "Mobile App Sec Triathlon" for the training events we do.

So, how are your 2013 security-related resolutions coming along? We're about 2/3 of the way through the first month of the year, after all. Not so good, eh? Well, let's consider a few things to help out a bit.

  • Be realistic. It's really easy to make a massive list of everything you should be doing, and then simply become overwhelmed by it all. Prioritize what matters most to you, your organization, and your users. The good folks over at OWASP recently did a threat model of mobile devices, from which they derived (yet another) Top 10 list, this time of the risks surrounding mobile devices.

    In that project, the two biggest risks that directly impact the client side of things are: 1) Lost or stolen device and 2) Insecure communications.

    So, prioritize what you need to do around these things, for starters. Consider how your apps store data on the mobile device. Make an inventory of every file they create or touch, and take a candid assessment of what's there and how that information might be used by an attacker who has access to it.

    Consider too how your app communicates with the server (or other comms). How are you securing those connections and protecting the privacy of the information? What data are you sending and receiving, and how might that be used by an attacker who has access to it?

    These are great starting points to get your mobile app security efforts launched in the right direction.
  • Assign responsibilities and/or set clear goals and milestones. It's one thing to come up with a great list of stuff that needs to be done, but who is going to do the work? When is it going to be done? What measurable milestones exist between now and completion?

    Sure, these are basic project management 101 sorts of topics, but they're still important. After all, you can't manage what you can't measure.
  • How are others addressing the issues? Whatever topics you're looking to address, it's worth spending some time to find out how other people have tackled them. While you won't always find a solution, it's quite possible someone has published a book, paper, talk, blog entry, etc., on your topic, or something very similar. If you have interns, launch them at this sort of domain analysis. Also consider seeking community forums where you can go and chat with your peers from other organizations. I've found OWASP Chapter meetings to be hugely useful for that sort of thing. An active OWASP Chapter that meets once a month or so can be a fabulous place to talk with others in the field.
  • Don't give up. While tackling app security may seem a Sisyphean task at times, failure is worse.
  • Three pillars. Keep in mind the three focus areas necessary for a software security program: risk management, security activities, and knowledge. On risk, you have got to be able to rationalize the business risks associated with your apps, and make design decisions that are commensurate. For activities, look at what activities others are doing. The BSIMM is a great starting point for that. And for knowledge, encourage and incentivize your developers to be sponge all the app security info they can find. Training, of course, is helpful, but that's only one of many sources of knowledge in a balanced knowledge "diet".
The bottom line, as I pointed out in the column, is that becoming secure takes effort. It requires someone to push that rock up the hill day after day, and there are bound to be setbacks.

Still overwhelmed? Here's a concrete thing you can do to get 2013 off to a good start. Register yourself or your developers for our next Mobile App Security Triathlon. Three days of iOS and Android hands-on training, starting on April 29th.

Hope to see you there -- and to have some meaningful discussions about other things you can be doing to bolster your mobile app security efforts.



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