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No benign apps

No such thing as a benign app?

The challenge of so-called “shadow IT” is the inherent insecurity posed by unsanctioned devices and applications used throughout the enterprise. If IT managers don’t know what they’ve  got running on the network, they can’t assess the risk these smartphones and apps pose or what kind of malware is poised to strike at the agency’s systems and data.

Even if the users are aware of the potential problems of the devices and applications they are toting in the workplace, that doesn’t mean they are safe. As the Defense Department recently pointed out, actual malware doesn’t have to exist in the apps on a device to offer a potential threat.

In an advisory put out by several of the services, common access card (CAC) users were warned not to use a free application they could download from Google Play that would scan the barcode on the front of the ID card, and through that get personal data of the cardholder such as name, Social Security number, military rank and DOD ID number.

As one memo from the Air Force put it, why would users even need such an app since, presumably, they already know the details embedded in their own cards? And even if there is an innocent reason for scanning other cards (some kind of misplaced curiosity?), there’s no way to know where the scanned information will end up.

The app, called CAC Scan, expands the definition of what should be considered a “risky” app in bring-your-own-device and shadow IT era, according to mobile security company Lookout. When it analyzed the app, it found no malicious behavior that would trigger any regular security concern, but nevertheless it does accurately decode the contents of the barcode on the front of the CAC card.

The DOD itself was thinking of the insider threat posed by this app. But a bigger problem, as Lookout engineer Alex Gladd pointed out, is that this barcode scanner app saves a history of all of the barcodes its users scan and stores that data in an unencrypted database. A bad guy could use a targeted phishing campaign to get a copy of that database and subsequently extract the sensitive personal information of military members.

Think of the breach of Office of Personnel Management  -- except potentially even worse.

Bad guys, who are never less than innovative, have caught on to the potential of using the apparently benign apps users can download from app stores as a front end for their nefarious means. Benign, when it comes to apps, no longer means what you think it means.

In its advisory about CAC Scan, the Army offers its CAC users a number of general pointers on mobile app security:

  • Before downloading, installing or using any application, take a moment to review the “About the Developer” section and visit the developer’s website and assess its content for history, other published apps, professional appearance, etc.
  • Apps that purport to allow access to military or government sites should only be installed if they are official apps and downloaded through official channels.
  • Perusing user ratings and reviews gives a sense of the veracity of the application’s claims. Inarguably, no app is completely perfect for all users, but complaints about security should quickly stand out from other relatively benign issues.
  • Users who have inadvertently download an app they’re unsure about should inspect the device’s application permissions screen to determine what other applications or information will be accessed by the app. A video game, for example, is unlikely to have a legitimate need to access your contacts.

All well and good, but does DOD -- or any other government agency -- expect all its employees to follow all of this advice? BYOD and shadow IT aren’t going away. What CAC Scan illustrates is the kind of expanded security risk all government agencies, not just the DOD, are now facing.

Posted by Brian Robinson on Jul 05, 2016 at 1:19 PM


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