The HP study focused purely on custom business apps, but there’s no reason to believe the issue doesn’t extend to commercial apps you find in the Apple App Store or Google Play. Many apps have access to data or permission to perform functions they shouldn’t.
If you want to play a game like Angry Birds, there’s no reason that it needs to have access to your contacts, and a weather app probably doesn’t need to be able to send email on your behalf. The security risks in apps go beyond permissions, though. There are issues in how the apps integrate with core functions of the mobile operating system, as well as how they interact with and share information with one another.
In the HP study, 97 percent of the apps contained some sort of privacy issue. HP also found that 86 percent of the apps lack basic security defenses, and 75 percent fail to properly encrypt data. Assuming similar percentages across the hundreds of thousands of consumer apps in the app stores, it’s likely that you have a few security or privacy concerns floating around your smartphone or tablet.
But this isn’t about malicious apps designed to steal your data. It’s mostly a function of lazy coding. Developers write apps that access everything because it’s easier than writing more specific code, and it also paves the way for any future enhancements that might actually need it.
In a BYOD scenario these security and privacy risks are exaggerated for both the employer and the employee. In most cases, the line between business and personal is not clearly defined, and apps can easily blur that line and put both company and personal data at risk. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that apps are impulse purchases for many users, thanks to low prices and easy installation.
The mobile operating systems have improved in terms notifying users about the permissions an app is requesting and providing the user with more control to allow or block access to specific functions. But the system still puts too much burden on the user, both to know those controls exist and how to use them, as well as to understand the implications and security concerns of the apps.
The better solution is for developers to build security and privacy into the apps from square one. Developers should be aware of the potential implications of how their apps access data and interact with other apps, and design them to be secure by default.
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Tony is principal analyst with the Bradley Strategy Group, providing analysis and insight on tech trends. He is a prolific writer on a range of technology topics, has authored a number of books, and is a frequent speaker at industry events.
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