July 14, 2020

The Problem of Exposed Code in Healthcare Apps

by Jscrambler

The Problem of Exposed Code in Healthcare Apps

The digitalization of healthcare services has prompted companies to release Web and mobile platforms that allow consumers to easily access a myriad of services.

However, as positive as this shift has been for companies and consumers alike, it means that extremely sensitive data — Protected Health Information (PHI) — is now more exposed to cyberattacks.

In 2019, 33 million patients had their PHI breached or stolen and many of them faced identity theft and fraud. Companies also incur significant costs in attack clean-up, compensations to clients, and loss of revenue due to negative press.

Contact Tracing Apps

One very specific case of healthcare applications that surfaced recently is contact tracing apps. These apps are being developed all over the world as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a nutshell, a contact tracing app allows people to be notified whenever someone that they were in close contact with tested positive for COVID-19 (provided that both were using the app).

The use of these apps has been surrounded by fears and controversy — especially because these apps handle such sensitive information. But beyond this complicated question of data privacy, there's the matter of security. With thousands of security vulnerabilities for attackers to exploit, as well as integrity-related weaknesses that can be abused, the teams behind contact tracing apps need to put in place strict application security.

And even though only a few contact tracing apps have been released, we have already seen critical security incidents.

Scam Copycat Apps

In June 2020, security researchers found 12 fake contact tracing apps targeting citizens in Asia, Europe, and South America. These apps are copycats of official government apps, using their actual branding to trick users into trusting them.

When users install these scam apps, they covertly install malware on the device, including banking trojans that steal user credentials and personal data. Apart from financial fraud, victims can become targets of ransomware and identity theft.

These so-called low-tech attacks are based on attackers retrieving the source code of the legitimate app and deploying it somewhere else. Then, attackers distribute them using unofficial app stores and third-party apps.

Data Exfiltration

While scam copycat apps pose a significant threat, a more serious concern in healthcare applications (including contact tracing apps) is data exfiltration.

By default, once deployed, applications lack any type of integrity verification controls and their source code is left completely exposed and unprotected. As stated in the OWASP Mobile Top 10 project, this allows attackers to "reveal information about back end servers; reveal cryptographic constants and ciphers; steal intellectual property; perform attacks against back end systems; or gain intelligence needed to perform subsequent code modification".

By understanding how the application works, attackers get one step closer to planning/automating data exfiltration or scraping attacks.

How to Protect Healthcare Apps

With the stakes being this high in healthcare and government-backed apps, security teams must go the extra mile to ensure that attackers remain locked out.

Using current technology, the security teams behind these implementations can (and should) add protective layers to these apps’ source code. One key layer is obfuscation, a technique that transforms the source code into a new version that is extremely hard to reverse-engineer.

Another important security layer is code locks. These tie-in the source code to a list of allowed environments and Operating Systems and break the app when it is run outside of this allowlist. By locking attackers out, this security layer goes a long way towards preventing low-tech copycats and scam apps.

Finally, runtime defenses must be present as an additional layer of security. These can be set up to break app execution when there has been any type of compromise to the integrity of the app. So, whenever attackers try to debug the app or change its source code, the app will immediately break, on purpose, and make attackers lose their progress.

Final Thoughts

At times of fast digitalization, application security can't lag behind.

Every year, attackers manage to get hold of protected health information of millions of patients. With contact tracing apps making a debut, we're already seeing critical security incidents that originate from unprotected source code.

Healthcare organizations must act fast to put in place vetted security systems and ensure that the source code of their apps won't serve as a gateway to data exfiltration attacks.

We have recently released a case study showing how a healthcare company has used Jscrambler to harden the source code of its apps and increase its compliance with data privacy regulations. Read it here.