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Many iOS Developers Don’t Use Encryption: Report

Many developers who are creating applications for Apple’s iOS do not use encryption in their software, a report from security startup Wandera shows.

Many developers who are creating applications for Apple’s iOS do not use encryption in their software, a report from security startup Wandera shows.

Apple is mandating developers to build end-to-end encryption into their apps and even offers a feature to help developers comply with data privacy requirements. However, more than two thirds of the 30,000 applications analyzed by Wandera don’t use the encryption feature. 

Meant to keep data safe from malicious parties, encryption allows users to send and receive sensitive information without fearing the data is visible to anyone who might be monitoring their traffic. 

In 2015, Apple released a networking security feature called App Transport Security (ATS) as an optional feature in iOS 9.0, but announced in 2016 that all iOS apps would be required to follow and use it, unless there was a strong justification for an exception. The requirement should have been enforced in January 2017, but the deadline has been postponed indefinitely

Although a strong justification is required for disabling ATS, developers are successfully disabling ATS without it. In newer iOS versions, developers can set a global ATS configuration and add per-case exceptions for specific functions within an app. 

Wandera found that two-thirds (67.8%) of the 30,000 analyzed apps that are commonly used by employees disable ATS globally without setting any granular exceptions for specific functions. Only 5.3% of apps, the security firm says, use the new more granular keys to disable ATS. 

Disabling ATS globally, however, does not necessarily mean that all communication is unencrypted, but that system safeguards are disabled, which leaves more room for error.

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The research also revealed that nearly half (45.7%) of paid apps have ATS globally enabled, but most of the free apps (68.5%) have the feature completely disabled. With ad frameworks often requiring ATS to be disabled to some degree, it’s no wonder paid apps have stricter ATS settings, Wandera notes.

Finance is the app category with ATS enabled most often (40.4%), followed by health and fitness (34.9%), utilities (34.9%), photo and video (33.8%), navigation (33.6%), education (33.4%), productivity (33.2%), reference (32.8%), medical (32.1%), and business (27.3%) rounding up top 10. 

“Not included in the data, but still worth mentioning, are sticker apps. Sticker apps are apps that deliver stickers for iMessage. In our analysis, we discovered that almost all sticker apps (96.8%) enable ATS globally,” Wandera says. 

However, with most sticker apps having no reason to communicate to the outside web, there is no need for developers to modify the ATS settings, meaning they leave the security feature enabled by default.

Developers can also specify exceptions on a per-domain basis, which completely overrides the global settings for a particular domain (either enabling or disabling ATS). The analysis revealed that 70% of apps have no exception domains, while the remaining 30% have less than five. 

“More than three quarters of apps with ATS globally disabled (77.3%) do not specify any exception domains, therefore the safeguards are completely disabled for all network communication,” Wandera notes. 

The analysis revealed that 9.4% of apps with ATS globally disabled specify exceptions that enable ATS, while 9.2% specify exception domains to disable ATS. Most of the top 10 exception domains are related to Facebook and other large Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) like Amazon and Akamai. 

Wandera suggests that developers are taking the easy route either because they don’t actually understand how ATS works due to its complexity, or by simply submitting all the domains their apps need as exceptions to avoid interruptions, instead of checking which domains support HTTPS. 

“The question now is will Apple continue to allow sloppy development on its platform or will it decide to reinstate a deadline for the strict ATS implementation it had envisioned? Web service operators also need to become part of the solution. They can’t keep supporting unencrypted content when OS vendors like Apple are trying to move toward total encryption. Web service operators should be supporting HTTPS and encouraging developers to use secure connections,” the security firm concludes. 

Related: iOS Version of Exodus Spyware Discovered in an Escalating Italian Spy Scandal

Related: Fake iOS Fitness Apps Steal Money

Written By

Ionut Arghire is an international correspondent for SecurityWeek.

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