Tuesday, September 11, 2012

What's in your Android Security Toolkit?

Ken van Wyk asks mobile developers - what's in your bag of tricks? From a security perspective Ken lists a number of critical things for developers to protect their app, their data and their users; these include protecting secrets in tranist and at rest, server connection, authentication, authorization, input validation and out put encoding.

These are all fundamental to building a secure mobile app. Over the next few posts, I will address the core security issues from an Android standpoint and what security tools shold be in every Android developer's tookit.

First, with regard to security for Android I think there are three key areas:
  • Identity and Access Control - provisioning and policy for how the system is supposed to work for authorized users
  • Defensive Coding - techniques for dealing with malicious users
  • Enablement - getting the app wired up to work in a real world deployment
So onwards to policy for Identity and Access Control, a good place to start is with AndroidManifest.xml.

There are only two hard things in Computer Science: cache invalidation and naming things. -- Phil Karlton

AndroidManifest.xml provides the authoritative source for package name and unique identifier for the application, this effectively bootstraps the apps' activities, intents, intent filters, services, broadcast receivers, and content providers. These show the externaly interfaces available for the application.

The next step is assigning permissions. Android takes a bold stance by publishing the permissions that the app requests before its installed. This has the positive effect of letting the user know what they are permitting, but at the same time the user cannot change or limit the app. If they want to play Angry Birds (and who doesn't?) they choose to install Angry Brids with the permissions set by the developer or they choose to live an Angry Birds-free existence. So the overall effect is to inform the user but not let the user choose granular permissions (this last has the positive effect of not turning the average user into a system adminisrator for a tiny Linux box).

The AndroidManifest.XML contains the request for access to system resources such as Internet, WIFI, SMS, Phone, Storage, and other

<uses-permission android:name="android.permission.
<uses-permission android:name="android.permission.
<uses-permission android:name="android.permission.
<uses-permission android:name="android.permission.
<uses-permission android:name="android.permission.

The first step for App Developers here is to only request the least amount of privileges necessary for your app to get the job done. Saltzer and Schroeder first defined the principle of Least Privilege:

Every program and every user of the system should operate using the least set of privileges necessary to complete the job. Primarily, this principle limits the damage that can result from an accident or error. It also reduces the number of potential interactions among privileged programs to the minimum for correct operation, so that unintentional, unwanted, or improper uses of privilege are less likely to occur. Thus, if a question arises related to misuse of a privilege, the number of programs that must be audited is minimized. Put another way, if a mechanism can provide "firewalls," the principle of least privilege provides a rationale for where to install the firewalls. The military security rule of "need-to-know" is an example of this principle.

Notice the two facets of this principle. The first is the conservative assumption to limit the damage of accident and error. This margin of safety approach should be near and dear to every engineer's heart. The second part of the principle is simiplicity - if its not needed turn it off, or in this case do not publish or request access to it.

From a security point of view, the AndroidManifest file helps to reduce your applications' attack surface. If you don't need SMS or Internet or Wifi, don't ask for it.

Android has a pretty interesting approach to access control from some under involvement to declarative permission to capabilities, and we will dig deeper into this in the next post.

Come join two leading experts, Gunnar Peterson and Ken van Wyk, for a Mobile App Security Training - hands on iOS and Android security, in San Jose, California, on November 5-7, 2012.

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