A new study provides specifics about how insecure mobile applications can be. The findings by Chicago-based security company ViaForensics include the discovery that three-quarters of the examined applications for Google's Android and Apple's iOS devices store usernames without encryption.
The study from November through June also found that 10 percent store passwords similarly in the open. One hundred financial, social-networking, productivity and retail apps were included in the study, which rated apps as pass, fail or warn. Pass indicated encryption or other unavailability of sensitive data, fail was the opposite, and warn refers to data that isn't secure but doesn't appear to put the user at risk. Of the apps examined, 39 received a fail, 17 a pass, and 44 a warning.
Social Apps 'Least Secure'
Not surprisingly, financial applications were among the most secure, with 14 of 32 getting a pass and 10 a warning. Several financial apps failed, including Wikinvest and Square for the iPhone, and Mint for Android devices and the iPhone.
Social-networking apps were "the least secure group" tested. None of the 19 received a passing grade, and 14 of them failed. These apps, such as LinkedIn for Android, failed to encrypt passwords and data used in the application.
The study noted that social-networking apps "are inherently different" from financial apps, in that much of the information is meant for public consumption. But, it pointed out, IM logs and direct messages are meant to be seen only by the people intended, so the ability to access this information provoked a failing grade.
Productivity apps, which include such widely used programs as Gmail, iPhone mail, WordPress and Yahoo Mail, also did poorly. Of the 35 apps tested in that category, only three passed. One of the reasons cited was that the text in e-mails, which can often be confidential, was not stored securely.
Only two of 14 retail apps passed, and the others got off with a warning. The study noted that Groupon's app for Android failed because of its password-recovery technique.
Android, Apple OSes
The study also noted the relative differences between Android and iOS security efforts.
Android 3.0, Honeycomb, was the first Android OS with encryption for the user partition on a device, but it's currently only available on tablets, not smartphones. ViaForensics pointed out that Android developers have discovered how to get root access on Android smartphones, which promotes the development of innovative apps as well as providing full access to a user's data.
By contrast, the report said that, since version 3, Apple's iOS has had encryption for the file system to protect user data on iPhone 3GS and later devices. Apple completely reworked the encryption method with iOS 4. However, the user needs to set up a passcode, or files on the device are not fully protected. In addition, hacker tools have already been developed to get around the passcode, the report said, "with varying degrees of success, depending on the strength of passcode used."
Brad Shimmin, an analyst with industry research firm Current Analysis, noted that the study shows mobile applications are still in a "buyer beware" era.
He said smartphone insecurity is the reason many financial employees have two phones -- one that has been locked down by their IT departments, and one for personal use. Until smartphone apps develop better security, he said, "it's inevitable there will be catastrophes of information being stolen" on a large number of mobile devices, which hopefully will provide "a kick in the pants" for users and developers.