20 min read

In this article by Vijay Velu, the author of Mobile Application Penetration Testing, we will discuss the current state of mobile application security and the approach to testing for vulnerabilities in mobile devices. We will see the major players in the smartphone OS market and how attackers target users through apps. We will deep-dive into the architecture of Android and iOS to understand the platforms and its current security state, focusing specifically on the various vulnerabilities that affect apps. We will have a look at the Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP) standard to classify these vulnerabilities. The readers will also get an opportunity to practice the security testing of these vulnerabilities via the means of readily available vulnerable mobile applications. The article will have a look at the step-by-step setup of the environment that’s required to carry out security testing of mobile applications for Android and iOS. We will also explore the threats that may arise due to potential vulnerabilities and learn how to classify them according to their risks.

(For more resources related to this topic, see here.)

Smartphones’ market share

Understanding smartphones’ market share will give us a clear picture about what cyber criminals are after and also what could be potentially targeted. The mobile application developers can propose and publish their applications on the stores and be rewarded by a revenue share of the selling price.

The following screenshot that was taken from www.idc.com provides us with the overall smartphone OS market in 2015:

Mobile Application Penetration Testing

Since mobile applications are platform-specific, majority of the software vendors are forced to develop applications for all the available operating systems.

Android operating system

Android is an open source, Linux-based operating system for mobile devices (smartphones and tablet computers). It was developed by the Open Handset Alliance, which was led by Google and other companies. Android OS is Linux-based. It can be programmed in C/C++, but most of the application development is done in Java (Java accesses C libraries via JNI, which is short for Java Native Interface).

iPhone operating system (iOS)

It was developed by Apple Inc. It was originally released in 2007 for iPhone, iPod Touch, and Apple TV. Apple’s mobile version of the OS X operating system that’s used in Apple computers is iOS. Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) is UNIX-based and can be programmed in Objective C.

Public Android and iOS vulnerabilities

Before we proceed with different types of vulnerabilities on Android and iOS, this section introduces you to Android and iOS as an operating system and covers various fundamental concepts that need to be understood to gain experience in mobile application security. The following table comprises year-wise operating system releases:






iPhone OS 1

iPhone OS 2



iPhone OS 3

1.5 (Cupcake)

2.0 (Eclair)



2.1 (Eclair)

iOS 4

2.2 (Froyo)



2.3.4-2.3.7 (Gingerbread)

iOS 5

3.0 (HoneyComb)

3.1 (HoneyComb)

3.2 (HoneyComb)

4.0-4.0.2 (Ice Cream Sandwich)

4.0.3-4.0.4 (Ice Cream Sandwich)


4.1 (Jelly Bean)

iOS 6

4.2 (Jelly Bean)


4.3 (Jelly bean)

iOS 7

4.4 (KitKat)


5.0 (Lollipop)

iOS 8

5.1 (Lollipop)



iOS 9 (beta)

An interesting research conducted by Hewlett Packard (HP), a software giant that tested more than 2,000 mobile applications from more than 600 companies, has reported the following statistics (for more information, visit http://www8.hp.com/h20195/V2/GetPDF.aspx/4AA5-1057ENW.pdf):

  • 97% of the applications that were tested access at least one private information source of these applications
  • 86% of the applications failed to use simple binary-hardening protections against modern-day attacks
  • 75% of the applications do not use proper encryption techniques when storing data on a mobile device
  • 71% of the vulnerabilities resided on the web server
  • 18% of the applications sent usernames and password over HTTP (of the remaining 85%, 18% implemented SSL/HTTPS incorrectly)

So, the key vulnerabilities to mobile applications arise due to a lack of security awareness, “usability versus security trade-off” by developers, excessive application permissions, and a lack of privacy concerns. Coupling this with a lack of sufficient application documentation leads to vulnerabilities that developers are not aware of.

Usability versus security trade-off

For every developer, it would not be possible to provide users with an application with high security and usability. Making any application secure and usable takes a lot of effort and analytical thinking.

Mobile application vulnerabilities are broadly categorized as follows:

  • Insecure transmission of data: Either an application does not enforce any kind of encryption for data in transit on a transport layer, or the implemented encryption is insecure.
  • Insecure data storage: Apps may store data either in a cleartext or obfuscated format, or hard-coded keys in the mobile device. An example e-mail exchange server configuration on Android device that uses an e-mail client stores the username and password in cleartext format, which is easy to reverse by any attacker if the device is rooted.
  • Lack of binary protection: Apps do not enforce any anti-reversing, debugging techniques.
  • Client-side vulnerabilities: Apps do not sanitize data provided from the client side, leading to multiple client-side injection attacks such as cross-site scripting, JavaScript injection, and so on.
  • Hard-coded passwords/keys: Apps may be designed in such a way that hard-coded passwords or private keys are stored on the device storage.
  • Leakage of private information: Apps may unintentionally leak private information. This could be due to the use of a particular framework and obscurity assumptions of developers.

Android vulnerabilities

In July 2015, a security company called Zimperium announced that it discovered a high-risk vulnerability named Stagefright inside the Android operating system. They deemed it as a unicorn in the world of Android risk, and it was practically demonstrated in one of the hacking conferences in the US on August 5, 2015. More information can be found at https://blog.zimperium.com/stagefright-vulnerability-details-stagefright-detector-tool-released/; a public exploit is available at https://www.exploit-db/exploits/38124/.

This has made Google release security patches for all Android operating systems, which is believed to be 95% of the Android devices, which is an estimated 950 million users. The vulnerability is exploited through a particular library, which can let attackers take control of an Android device by sending a specifically crafted multimedia services like Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS).

If we take a look at the superuser application downloads from the Play Store, there are around 1 million to 5 million downloads. It can be assumed that a major portion of Android smartphones are rooted.

The following graphs show the Android vulnerabilities from 2009 until September 2015. There are currently 54 reported vulnerabilities for the Android Google operating system (for more information, visit http://www.cvedetails.com/product/19997/Google-Android.html?vendor_id=1224).

Mobile Application Penetration Testing

More features that are introduced to the operating system in the form of applications act as additional entry points that allow cyber attackers or security researchers to circumvent and bypass the controls that were put in place.

iOS vulnerabilities

On June 18, 2015, password stealing vulnerability, also known as Cross Application Reference Attack (XARA), was outlined for iOS and OS X. It cracked the keychain services on jailbroken and non-jailbroken devices. The vulnerability is similar to cross-site request forgery attack in web applications. In spite of Apple’s isolation protection and its App Store’s security vetting, it was possible to circumvent the security controls mechanism. It clearly provided the need to protect the cross-app mechanism between the operating system and the app developer. Apple rolled a security update week after the XARA research. More information can be found at http://www.theregister.co.uk/2015/06/17/apple_hosed_boffins_drop_0day_mac_ios_research_blitzkrieg/

The following graphs show the vulnerabilities in iOS from 2007 until September 2015. There are around 605 reported vulnerabilities for Apple iPhone OS (for more information, visit http://www.cvedetails.com/product/15556/Apple-Iphone-Os.html?vendor_id=49).

Mobile Application Penetration Testing

As you can see, the vulnerabilities kept on increasing year after year. A majority of the vulnerabilities reported are denial-of-service attacks. This vulnerability makes the application unresponsive.

Primarily, the vulnerabilities arise due to insecure libraries or overwriting with plenty of buffer in the stacks.


Rooting/jailbreaking refers to the process of removing the limitations imposed by the operating system on devices through the use of exploit tools. Rooting/jailbreaking enables users to gain complete control over the operating system of a device.

OWASP’s top ten mobile risks

In 2013, OWASP polled the industry for new vulnerability statistics in the field of mobile applications. The following risks were finalized in 2014 as the top ten dangerous risks as per the result of the poll data and mobile application threat landscape:

Mobile Application Penetration Testing

  • M1: Weak server-side controls: Internet usage via mobiles has surpassed fixed Internet access. This is largely due to the emergence of hybrid and HTML5 mobile applications. Application servers that form the backbone of these applications must be secured on their own. The OWASP top 10 web application project defines the most prevalent vulnerabilities in this realm. Vulnerabilities such as injections, insecure direct object reference, insecure communication, and so on may lead to the complete compromise of an application server. Adversaries who have gained control over the compromised servers can push malicious content to all the application users and compromise user devices as well.
  • M2: Insecure data storage: Mobile applications are being used for all kinds of tasks such as playing games, fitness monitors, online banking, stock trading, and so on, and most of the data used by these applications are either stored in the device itself inside SQLite files, XML data stores, log files, and so on, or they are pushed on to Cloud storage. The types of sensitive data stored by these applications may range from location information to bank account details. The application programing interfaces (API) that handle the storage of this data must securely implement encryption/hashing techniques so that an adversary with direct access to these data stores via theft or malware will not be able to decipher the sensitive information that’s stored in them.
  • M3: Insufficient transport layer protection: “Insecure Data Storage”, as the name says, is about the protection of data in storage. But as all the hybrid and HTML 5 apps work on client-server architecture, emphasis on data in motion is a must, as the data will have to traverse through various channels and will be susceptible to eavesdropping and tampering by adversaries. Controls such as SSL/TLS, which enforce confidentiality and integrity of data, must be verified for correct implementations on the communication channel from the mobile application and its server.
  • M4: Unintended data leakage: Certain functionalities of mobile applications may place users’ sensitive data in locations where it can be accessed by other applications or even by malware. These functionalities may be there in order to enhance the usability or user experience but may pose adverse effects in the long run. Actions such as OS data caching, key press logging, copy/paste buffer caching, and implementations of web beacons or analytics cookies for advertisement delivery can be misused by adversaries to gain information about users.
  • M5: Poor authorization and authentication: As mobile devices are the most “personal” devices, developers utilize this to store important data such as credentials locally in the device itself and come up with specific mechanisms to authenticate and authorize users locally for the services that users request via the application. If these mechanisms are poorly developed, adversaries may circumvent these controls and unauthorized actions can be performed. As the code is available to adversaries, they can perform binary attacks and recompile the code to directly access authorized content.
  • M6: Broken cryptography: This is related to the weak controls that are used to protect data. Using weak cryptographic algorithms such as RC2, MD5, and so on, which can be cracked by adversaries, will lead to encryption failure. Improper encryption key management when a key is stored in locations accessible to other applications or the use of a predictable key generation technique will also break the implemented cryptography techniques.
  • M7: Client-side injection: Injection vulnerabilities are the most common web vulnerabilities according to OWASP web top 10 dangerous risks. These are due to malformed inputs, which cause unintended action such as an alteration of database queries, command execution, and so on. In case of mobile applications, malformed inputs can be a serious threat at the local application level and server side as well (refer to M1: Weak server-side controls). Injections at a local application level, which mainly target data stores, may result in conditions such as access to paid content that’s locked for trial users or file inclusions that may lead to an abuse of functionalities such as SMSes.
  • M8: Security decisions via untrusted inputs: An implementation of certain functionalities such as the use of hidden variables to check authorization status can be bypassed by tampering them during the transit via web service calls or inter-process communication calls. This may lead to privilege escalations and unintended behavior of mobile applications.
  • M9: Improper session handling: The application server sends back a session token on successful authentication with the mobile application. These session tokens are used by the mobile application to request for services. If these session tokens remain active for a longer duration and adversaries obtain them via malware or theft, the user account can be hijacked.
  • M10: Lack of binary protection: A mobile application’s source code is available to all. An attacker can reverse engineer the application and insert malicious code components and recompile them. If these tampered applications are installed by a user, they will be susceptible to data theft and may be the victims of unintended actions. Most applications do not ship with mechanisms such as checksum controls, which help in deducing whether the application is tampered or not.

In 2015, there was another poll under the OWASP Mobile security group named the “umbrella project”. This leads us to have M10 to M2, the trends look at binary protection to take over weak server-side controls. However, we will have wait until the final list for 2015. More details can be found at https://www.owasp.org/images/9/96/OWASP_Mobile_Top_Ten_2015_-_Final_Synthesis.pdf.

Vulnerable applications to practice

The open source community has been proactively designing plenty of mobile applications that can be utilized for practical tests. These are specifically designed to understand the OWASP top ten risks. Some of these applications are as follows:

  • iMAS: iMAS is a collaborative research project initiated by the MITRE corporation (http://www.mitre.org/). This is for application developers and security researchers who would like to learn more about attack and defense techniques in iOS. More information about iMAS can be found at https://github.com/project-imas/about.
  • GoatDroid: A simple functional mobile banking application for training with location tracking developed by Jack and Ken for Android application security is a great starting point for beginners. More information about GoatDroid can be found at https://github.com/jackMannino/OWASP-GoatDroid-Project.
  • iGoat: The OWASP’s iGOAT project is similar to the WebGoat web application framework. It’s designed to improve the iOS assessment techniques for developers. More information on iGoat can be found at https://code.google.com/p/owasp-igoat/.
  • Damn Vulnerable iOS Application (DVIA): DVIA is an iOS application that provides a platform for developers, testers, and security researchers to test their penetration testing skills. This application covers all the OWASP’s top 10 mobile risks and also contains several challenges that one can solve and come up with custom solutions. More information on the Damn Vulnerable iOS Application can be found at http://damnvulnerableiosapp.com/.
  • MobiSec: MobiSec is a live environment for the penetration testing of mobile environments. This framework provides devices, applications, and supporting infrastructure. It provides a great exercise for testers to view vulnerabilities from different points of view. More information on MobiSec can be found at http://sourceforge.net/p/mobisec/wiki/Home/.

Android application sandboxing

Android utilizes the well-established Linux protection ring model to isolate applications from each other. In Linux OS, assigning unique ID segregates every user. This ensures that there is no cross account data access. Similarly in Android OS, every app is assigned with its own unique ID and is run as a separate process. As a result, an application sandbox is formed at the kernel level, and the application will only be able to access the resources for which it is permitted to access. This subsequently ensures that the app does not breach its work boundaries and initiate any malicious activity.

For example, the following screenshot provides an illustration of the sandbox mechanism:

Mobile Application Penetration Testing

From the preceding Android Sandbox illustration, we can see how the unique Linux user ID created per application is validated every time a resource mapped to the app is accessed, thus ensuring a form of access control.

Android Studio and SDK

On May 16, 2013 at the Google I/O conference, an Integrated Development Environment (IDE) was released by Katherine Chou under Apache license 2.0; it was called Android Studio and it’s used to develop apps on the Android platform. It entered the beta stage in 2014, and the first stable release was on December 2014 from Version 1.0 and it has been announced the official IDE on September 15, 2015. Information on Android Studio and SDK is available at http://developer.android.com/tools/studio/index.html#build-system.

Android Studio and SDK heavily depends on the Java SE Development Kit.

Java SE Development Kit can be downloaded at http://www.oracle.com/technetwork/java/javase/downloads/jdk7-downloads-1880260.html.

Some developers prefer different IDEs such as eclipse. For them, Google only offers SDK downloads (http://dl.google.com/android/installer_r24.4.1-windows.exe).

There are minimum system requirements that need to be fulfilled in order to install and use the Android Studio effectively. The following procedure is used to install the Android Studio on Windows 7 Professional 64-bit Operating System with 4 GB RAM, 500 Gig Hard Disk Space, and Java Development Kit 7 installed:

  1. Install the IDE available for Linux, Windows, and Mac OS X. Android Studio can be downloaded by visiting http://developer.android.com/sdk/index.html.
  2. Once the Android Studio is downloaded, run the installer file. By default, an installation window will be shown, as shown in the following screenshot. Click on Next:

    Mobile Application Penetration Testing

  3. This setup will automatically check whether the system meets the requirements.
  4. Choose all the components that are required and click on Next.
  5. It is recommended to read and accept the license and click on Next.
  6. It is always recommended to create a new folder to install the tools that will help us track all the evidence in a single place. In this case, we have created a folder called Hackbox in C:, as shown in the following screenshot:

    Mobile Application Penetration Testing

  7. Now, we can allocate the space required for the Android-accelerated environment, which will provide better performance. So, it is recommended to allocate a minimum of 2GB for this space.
  8. All the necessary files will be extracted to C:Hackbox.
  9. Once the installation is complete, you will be able to launch Android Studio, as shown in the following screenshot:

    Mobile Application Penetration Testing

Android SDK

Android SDK provides developers with the ability to completely build, test, and debug apps that run on the Android platform. It has all the relevant software libraries, APIs, system images of the emulators, documentations, and other tools that help create an Android app. We have installed Android Studio with Android SDK. It is crucial to understand how to utilize the in-built SDK tools as much as possible. This section provides an overview of some of the critical tools that we will be using when attacking an Android app during the penetration testing activity.

Emulator, simulators, and real devices

Sometimes, we tend to believe that all virtual emulations work in exactly the same way in real devices, which is not really the case. Especially for Android, we have multiple OEMs manufacturing multiple devices, with different chipsets running different versions of Android. It would be challenge for developers to ensure that all the functionalities for the app reflect in the same way in all devices. It is very crucial to understand the difference between an emulator, simulator, and real devices.


An objective of a simulator is to simulate the state of an object, which is exactly the same state as that of an object. It is preferable that the testing happens when a mobile interacts with some of the natural behavior of the available resources. These are reimplementations of the original software applications that are written, and they are difficult to debug and are mostly writing in high-level languages.


Emulators predominantly aim at replicating the closest possible behavior of mobile devices. These are typically used to test a mobile’s behavior internally, such as hardware, software, and firmware updates. These are typically written in machine-level languages and are easy to debug. This is again the reimplementation of the real software.


  • Fast, simple, and little or no price associated
  • Emulators/simulators are quickly available to test the majority of the functionality of the app that is being developed
  • It is very easy to find the defects using emulators and fix issues


  • The risk of false positives is increased; some of the functions or protection may actually not work on a real device.
  • Differences in software and hardware will arise. Some of the emulators might be able to mimic the hardware. However, it may or may not work when it is actually installed on that particular hardware in reality.
  • There’s a lack of network interoperability. Since emulators are not really connected to a Wi-Fi or cellular network, it may not be possible to test network-based risks/functions.

Real devices

Real devices are physical devices that a user will be interacting with. There are pros and cons of real devices too.


  • Lesser false positives: Results are accurate
  • Interoperability: All the test cases are on a live environment
  • User experience: Real user experience when it comes to the CPU utilization, memory, and so on for a provided device
  • Performance: Performance issues can be found quickly with real handsets


  • Costs: There are plenty of OEMs, and buying all the devices is not viable.
  • A slowdown in development: It may not be possible to connect an IDE and than emulators. This will significantly slow down the development process.
  • Other issues: The devices that are locally connected to the workstation will have to ensure that USB ports are open, thus opening an additional entry point.


A threat is something that can harm an asset that we are trying to protect. In mobile device security, a threat is a possible danger that might exploit a vulnerability to compromise and cause potential harm to a device.

A threat can be defined by the motives; it can be any of the following ones:

  • Intentional: An individual or a group with an aim to break an application and steal information
  • Accidental: The malfunctioning of a device or an application may lead to a potential disclosure of sensitive information
  • Others: Capabilities, circumstantial, and so on

Threat agents

A threat agent is used to indicate an individual or a group that can manifest a threat. Threat agents will be able to perform the following actions:

  • Access
  • Misuse
  • Disclose
  • Modify
  • Deny access


The security weakness within a system that might allow attackers to exploit it and break the security of the device is called a vulnerability.

For example, if a mobile device is stolen and it does not have the PIN or pass code enabled, the phone is vulnerable to data theft.


The intersection between asset (A), threat (T), and vulnerability (V) is a risk. However, a risk can be included along with the probability (P) of the threat occurrences to provide more value to the business.

Risk = A x T x V x P

These terms will help us understand the real risk to a given asset. Business will be benefited only if these risks are accurately assessed. Understanding threat, vulnerability, and risk is the first step in threat modeling.

For a given application, no vulnerabilities or a vulnerability with no threats is considered to be a low risk.


In this article, we saw that mobile devices are susceptible to attacks through various threats, which exist due to the lack of sufficient security measures that can be implemented at various stages of the development of a mobile application. It is necessary to understand how these threats are manifested and learn how to test and mitigate them effectively. Proper knowledge of the underlying architecture and the tools available for the testing of mobile applications will help developers and security testers alike in order to protect end users from attackers who may be attempting to leverage these vulnerabilities.

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