5 Ways Hackers Attack Mobile Devices and Applications
June 12, 2018
Lead Tech Analyst
Hackers go about achieving their goals with reverse engineering software to find vulnerabilities they can exploit, data they can extract, or ways to modify the software to do something it was never intended to do. The primary consequences of applications getting hacked include financial loss, destroyed brand reputation, exposure to liability, and regulatory risk.
Over 7 billion identities have been stolen in data breaches over the last eight years equal to one data breach for every person on the planet.
Why do Hackers Attack Mobile Devices and Applications?
In order to understand threats, we must understand what hackers are trying to achieve. Hackers will mount different kinds of attacks to achieve different kinds of goals. And so, defending against hackers in the context of application security may involve defending against many different kinds of attacks on your mobile device.
Hackers might be interested in bypassing business logic. For example, they might want to bypass controls that let them cheat at a video game or violate the terms of a software license. Of more serious concern is the potential for hackers to bypass controls in safety critical systems. It is not inconceivable that lives could be at risk if a hacker were able to hack a medical device, connected car or some component of critical infrastructure, such as a wind farm, a coal or nuclear power plant, a power grid, or a water treatment facility.
According to a recent study, automobiles today run systems that have more than 100 million lines of code. Those applications often contain valuable intellectual property, which hackers would rather steal than develop. For example, they might be a competitor or a nation state with inferior technology attempting to improve their own products in order to compete more effectively.
Hackers might also be interested in obtaining valuable pieces of data that are managed within the application, such as music or video, financial data, or privacy sensitive health data.
While data can be protected with cryptography, this only shifts the problem from protecting the data directly to protecting the cryptographic keys. Cryptographic keys are not only used to protect data. They can also be used to create a secure identity for a device.
A device may need such a key to authenticate to a cloud service. If a hacker were able to obtain this secret, they might be able to masquerade as that device or as the owner of the device. Cryptographic keys are also used to establish secure communications. For example, HTTPS is a familiar protocol that uses SSL/TLS to secure communication to websites. If a hacker were able to obtain these keys, they could snoop on or alter supposedly secure communications.
For all of these reasons, hackers are highly motivated to steal cryptographic keys embedded in or controlled by an application.
Sometimes hackers aren’t interested in the application itself, but using the application as a digital stepping stone to try to achieve some other goal. Hackers are often interested in obtaining root access on the device the application is running on, so they can install malware or use the device as a launch pad to attack something else.
Consider the 2016 Mirai botnet that infected web enabled cameras and installed a piece of malware that launched the largest distributed denial of service attack in history against the dynamic domain name service Dyn, causing wide spread internet outages. Those 100,000 cameras were able to launch 1.2 terabytes per second of data at a major piece of the global internet infrastructure. Here the goal of the attacker was not to compromise the webcam directly, but rather to bring down the web services of many companies whose DNS was controlled by Dyn.
Hacking Mobile Devices: Reverse Engineering and Tampering
Hackers employ two fundamental techniques when attacking: reverse engineering and tampering. If the hacker is trying to bypass business logic, they have to find where in the application the business logic resides. That requires reverse engineering. Then they typically must tamper with the application to bypass that logic.
If the hacker is trying to steal intellectual property, sensitive data or cryptographic keys from an application, they have to know where to look in the application. Unless those secrets are obvious, hackers need to reverse engineer the application to find them.
If the hacker is trying to create a stepping stone attack, they often use the workflow shown in Figure 1:
- First, they find some vulnerability in the application, which again requires reverse engineering;
- Then, they craft an exploit that takes advantage of that vulnerability;
- Finally, they attack by launching the exploit to the application.
In a remote attack like the popular SQL injection attack, this may involve sending the message to the application over the internet. But if they have physical access to the device, which with mobile and IoT based systems can be as easy as a trip to the store, then they can directly tamper with the device.
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