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Wed, 7 Mar 2012

Mobile Security - Observations from the developing world

By the year 2015 sub-Saharan Africa will have more people with mobile network access than with access to electricity at home.
This remarkable fact from a 2011 MobileMonday report [1] came to mind again as I read an article just yesterday about the introduction of Mobile Money in the UK: By the start of next year, every bank customer in the country may have the ability to transfer cash between bank accounts, using an app on their mobile phone. [2]

I originally came across the MobileMonday report while researching the question of mobility and security in Africa for a conference I was asked to present at [3]. In this presentation I examine the global growth and impact of the so-called mobile revolution and then its relevance to Africa, before looking at some of the potential security implications this revolution will have.

The bit about the mobile revolution is easy: According to the Economist there will be 10 billion mobile devices connected to the Internet by 2020, and the number of mobile devices will surpass the number of PCs and laptops by this year already. The mobile-only Internet population will grow 56-fold from 14 million at the end of 2010 to 788 million by the end of 2015. Consumerization - the trend for new information technology to emerge first in the consumer market and then spread into business organizations, resulting in the convergence of the IT and consumer electronics industries - implies that the end-user is defining the roadmap for these technologies as manufacturers, networks and businesses scramble desperately to absorb their impact.

Africa, languishing behind in so many other respects, is right there on the rushing face of this new wave, as my initial quote illustrates. In fact the kind of mobile payment technology referred to in the BBC article is already quite prevalent in our home markets in Africa and we're frequently engaged to test mobile application security in various forms. In my presentation for example, I make reference to m-Pesa - the mobile payments system launched in Kenya and now mimicked in South Africa also. Six million people in Kenya use m-Pesa, and more than 5% of that country's annual GDP is moved to and fro directly from mobile to mobile. There are nearly five times the number of m-Pesa outlets than the total number of PostBank branches, post offices, bank branches, and automated teller machines (ATMs) in the country combined.

Closer to home in South Africa, it is estimated that the number of people with mobile phones outstrips the number of people with fixed-line Internet connections by a factor of ten! And this impacts our clients and their businesses directly: Approximately 44% of urban cellphone users in South Africa now make use of mobile banking services. The reasoning is clear: Where fixed infrastructure is poor mobile will dominate, and where the mobile dominates mobile services will soon follow. Mobile banking, mobile wallets, mobile TV and mobile social networking and mobile strong-authentication systems are all already prevalent here in South Africa and are already bringing with them the expected new array of security challenges. Understanding this is one of the reasons our customers come to us.

In my presentation I describe the Mobile Threat Model as having three key facets:

  • Security: The challenge of ensuring Confidentiality, Integrity and Authenticity for the data and transactions on the device;
  • Privacy: The implications of mobility (and especially convergence) for citizens and their rights to talk, move, think and act unobserved; and
  • Control: The challenge presented by the mobile revolution to governments fighting crime, gangsterism and terrorism.
All of these issues are real and complex, but I'm restricting myself to the security question here. I encourage readers to peruse the presentation itself for a full breakdown of the Threat Model because for this article I think it suffices to consider just the conclusion of my presentation, and it's this:

The technical security issues we discover on mobile devices and mobile applications today are really no different from what we've been finding in other environments for years. There are some interesting new variations and interesting new attack vectors, but it's really just a new flavor of the same thing. But there are four attributes of the modern mobile landscape that combine to present us with an entirely new challenge:

Firstly, mobiles are highly connected. The mobile phone is permanently on some IP network and by extension permanently on the Internet. However, it's also connected via GSM and CDMA; it's connected with your PC via USB, your Bluetooth headset and your GPS, and soon it will be connected with other devices in your vicinity via NFC. Never before in our history have communications been so converged, and all via the wallet-sized device in your pocket right now!

Secondly, the mobile device is deeply integrated. On or through this platform is everything anyone would ever want to know about you: Your location, your phone calls, your messages, your personal data, your photos, your location, your location history and your entire social network. Indeed, in an increasing number of technical paradigms, your mobile device is you! Moreover, the device has the ability to collect, store and transmit everything you say, see and hear, and everywhere you go!

Thirdly, as I've pointed out, mobile devices are incredibly widely distributed. Basically, everyone has one or soon will. And, we're rapidly steering towards a homogenous environment defined by IOS and Google's Android. Imagine the effect this has on the value of an exploit or attack vector. Finally, the mobile landscape is still being very, very poorly managed. Except for the Apple AppStore, and recent advances by Google to manage the Android market, there is extremely little by way of standardization, automated patching or central management to be seen. Most devices, once deployed, will stay in commission for years to come and so security mistakes being made now are likely to become a nightmare for us in the future.

Thus, the technical issues well known from years of security testing in traditional environments are destined to prevail in mobile, and we're already seeing this in the environments we've tested. This reality, combined with how connected, integrated, distributed and poorly managed these platforms are, suggests that careless decisions today could cost us very dearly in the future...

[1] Mobile Africa Report 2011, Regional Hubs of Excellence and Innovation by Dr Madanmohan Rao, Research Project Director, MobileMonday March 2011

[2] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-17115946

[3] http://prezi.com/as-szhrug5zr/examining-the-impact-of-the-adoption-of-mobile-devices-throughout-africa-and-the-subsequent-rise-of-security-related-risks-sensepost-information-security/