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Researchers To Highlight Weaknesses In Secure Mobile Data Stores

At Black Hat USA, a team of mobile-security researchers plans to show off ways to circumvent the security of encrypted containers meant to protect data on mobile devices



With employees increasingly working from their personal devices, companies are searching for ways to protect sensitive data from whatever might be inhabiting those untrusted mobile environments.

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One method, frequently referred to as a secure container, uses an encrypted data store to protect the business information on the device from malware or an unauthorized user. Yet such precautions are not enough, says Michael Shaulov, CEO of Israeli startup Lacoon Mobile Security, which will show off ways to circumvent the protection of secure containers this month at Black Hat USA in Las Vegas.

Any malware or user who has access to the operating system will be able to undermine the integrity of the encryption used for most, if not all, secure containers included as part of a mobile device management (MDM) solution, Shaulov says.

"We basically show that once the operating system is compromised, then -- from that point on -- it is trivial for some sort of spyphone [software] to break into the secure container and steal information from there," he says.

The presentation will likely highlight that the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) trend is both a boon and a curse for companies. While employees are more productive and happy on devices that they have bought and own themselves, providing security for business data in such a setting is extremely difficult. The problem for companies is that locking down a worker's phone to the same degree as a company-owned device requires placing intrusive security on the system and allowing the company's IT department to manage the device, Shaulov says.

"You can completely lock down the mobile device, but then it is not BYOD anymore, and no employee will ... stand for that," he says.

Lacoon's presentation will not focus on specific exploits, but a chain of weaknesses that undermine the security of the encrypted containers on devices, Shaulov says. While such techniques have been used to steal data from desktop and laptop computers, mobile devices have mostly not been targeted, he says.

[Two apps currently available for download in Google Play abuse the critical master key vulnerability that affects almost all Android devices. Is Google reviewing apps for the flaw? See Google Play Has Apps Abusing Master Key Vulnerability.]

The researchers' claims are quite feasible, says Troy Vennon, director of Juniper Network's Mobile Threats Center. Having some sort of malware already on the device gives the attacker a leg up in attacking any software running on the machine, he says.

In addition, more malicious software is targeting the Android platform than any other mobile operating system. Because of its market share and open code, Android phones have become the focus of many malware authors, with more than 275,000 malicious apps written for the platform to date, according to Juniper's quarterly mobile threat report released in June. In addition, attackers are increasingly using spyware on mobile devices to gather information about the user -- information that could be sold or used to target the user with social engineering attacks, he says.

And once such software is on the device, gaining access to encrypted data stores is not a great leap, Vennon says.

"Is it viable at this point that malware, if it got system-level access, could bypass the encryption around a secure container?" he says. "It's absolutely possible."

With employee-owned devices, companies should assume that any smartphone or tablet brought in by a worker is compromised, says Kurt Stammberger, vice president of marketing for app-security firm Mocana. "The fact of BYOD is that all your employees are coming with God-knows-what on the device," he says. "Pretty much there is nothing you can do to clean it up."

Mocana, Good Technology, Appthority, and other companies use application wrapping to add security and better manage the applications that handle sensitive business data.

Yet beefing up that security with other layers of protection should be considered, Juniper's Vennon says. While any single technology can be bypassed, by using defense-in-depth methods -- including host-based protection, such as antivirus, mobile-device management, and encrypted communications -- businesses can better protect against the latest attacks, he says.

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Add Your Comment" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message. Veteran technology journalist of more than 20 years. Former research engineer. Written for more than two dozen publications, including CNET News.com, Dark Reading, MIT's Technology Review, Popular Science, and Wired News. Five awards for journalism, including Best Deadline ... View Full Bio

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