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Application Security

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Most iOS Apps In Enterprises Not Using Apple Encryption Feature

Despite a January 1, 2017 deadline, not many app vendors have switched on the Apple App Transport Security, according to a study by Appthority.

During its Worldwide Developers Conference in June this year Apple announced that it would give developers up to January 1, 2017 to switch on the company’s App Transport Security (ATS) feature in their apps. Yet, with less than four weeks to that deadline, a vast majority of the top iOS apps installed on enterprise devices have not yet implemented the feature.

Security vendor Appthority recently reviewed 200 applications commonly found on iOS devices that connect to enterprise data and networks to see how many have enabled ATS and how fully.

Appthority’s review found that just 3% of the top 200 iOS apps used in enterprises have implemented ATS without any exceptions. Nearly 83% of the apps, or 166 out of 200, have disabled ATS for all network connections, while some 55% allowed use of HTTP rather than requiring HTTPS connections. And nearly all (97%) of the apps reviewed specified changes or included exceptions that weakened ATS.

iOS apps that had not yet implemented 100% HTTPS at the time of Appthority’s review included Microsoft products like Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and OneNote, messaging apps such as Facebook and Whatsapp, social network applications, and utility apps such as flashlight and barcode readers.

ATS is a security feature in Apple’s OS X El Capitan and iOS 9 operating systems that essentially forces an application to connect to Web services via HTTPS rather than HTTP. It also requires app developers to build in support in their apps for Transport Layer Security (TLS) 1.2 or higher.

ATS is designed to enhance data security and privacy by ensuring that applications use strong encryption when communicating with app servers and services.

It comes enabled by default in iOS 9 and the El Capitan versions of Apple’s mobile and desktop operating systems. Application vendors have to explicitly disable the setting or set exceptions to it.

For example, there are many situations where an application might need to interact with a Web service that does not support encryption or has no need for it, says Robbie Forkish, vice president of engineering at Appthority.

In order for the application to be able to continue interacting with the Web service, Apple allows developers to request an exception to the ATS requirement in such cases. Similarly, app vendors can also seek to disable the setting when their apps have to handle certain types of media files, he says.

Apple has established a process where app developers can request exceptions to the ATS settings and it reviews those requests and decides whether to grant them or not.

Apple is one among several major technology vendors that have been leading the call for encryption everywhere as a security best practice.

Apple’s deadline requires all developers with apps in Apple Store to implement ATS or provide "reasonable justification" for not doing so by the end of the year. The company has said that after January 1, app developers will not be able to update their products in Store without switching on ATS first.

What this means is developers will either need to somehow implement ATS in the next three weeks or face the prospect of not being able to update their apps until they do so, Forkish says.

Users themselves will be able to continue using the applications as usual. But anyone expecting a higher degree of security and privacy in the app use as a result of the ATS requirement will likely not have it in such cases.

Apple has said it will allow exceptions to ATS if developers have a good reason for it. So organizations can expect to see iOS apps with unencrypted data even after the Jan 1 deadline passes, Forkish says.

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Jai Vijayan is a seasoned technology reporter with over 20 years of experience in IT trade journalism. He was most recently a Senior Editor at Computerworld, where he covered information security and data privacy issues for the publication. Over the course of his 20-year ... View Full Bio

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