M3: Insecure Authentication/Authorization – OWASP Mobile Top 10 – Best Practices


This article revolves around OWASP Mobile’s Top 10 issue M3: Insecure Authentication/Authorization.

In the ever-evolving landscape of cybersecurity, the challenges surrounding mobile application security persistently demand attention. Among the various threats, insecure authentication and authorization have emerged as critical vulnerabilities, landing in the 3rd position on the OWASP Mobile Top 10 for 2023. In this blog post, we will explore the nuances of insecure authentication and authorization, backed by a real-world example, and discuss effective mitigation techniques to safeguard mobile applications from exploitation.

Understanding Insecure Authentication/Authorization:

Authentication and authorization are fundamental pillars of any secure system, including mobile applications. Authentication verifies the identity of users, ensuring that they are who they claim to be, while authorization determines the level of access and actions users are allowed to perform within the system.

Insecure authentication and authorization can lead to a multitude of risks, including unauthorized access, data breaches, and compromised user accounts. Attackers exploit these vulnerabilities to gain unauthorized entry, manipulate sensitive information, and compromise the integrity of the entire application.

Real-world Example: The E-commerce Exploitation

Imagine a widely-used e-commerce mobile app that allows users to browse products, add them to their cart, and make purchases. The application relies on a simple authentication system where users input their email and password to log in.

Vulnerability 1: Weak Authentication:

The authentication process, unfortunately, lacks sophistication. It only requires a combination of an email address and a password, and the password policy is lenient, allowing weak passwords. An attacker could exploit this weakness using various methods, such as brute force attacks or credential stuffing.

An attacker obtains a list of username-password pairs from a previous data breach on another platform. Leveraging this list, they conduct a credential-stuffing attack on the e-commerce app. Due to weak authentication controls, the attacker successfully gains access to multiple user accounts without being detected.

The compromised accounts provide the attacker with unauthorized access to personal information, including names, addresses, and purchase history. Additionally, since the authentication process lacks multi-factor authentication (MFA), the attacker can easily take control of accounts, manipulate orders, and make fraudulent purchases.

Vulnerability 2: Flawed Authorization:

The e-commerce app employs a basic authorization model, allowing any authenticated user to access sensitive features such as account settings and order history. There’s no role-based access control (RBAC) in place, meaning every user has the same level of access upon authentication.

Having gained unauthorized access, the attacker explores the app and identifies that all users, once authenticated, can view and modify their account details. With this knowledge, they can now target specific users for more sophisticated attacks.

Exploiting this authorization flaw, the attacker can change account details, manipulate shipping addresses, or even alter payment methods for unsuspecting users. The lack of proper authorization controls enables these actions to occur without raising alarms.

Mitigation Techniques:

To fortify mobile applications against insecure authentication and authorization, developers and security professionals must implement robust mitigation techniques. Here are some best practices to consider:

  1. Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA): Implementing MFA adds an additional layer of security by requiring users to provide multiple forms of identification, such as passwords, one-time codes, or biometric data.
  2. Secure Password Policies: Enforce strong password policies, including minimum length, complexity requirements, and regular password updates. Additionally, educate users about the importance of creating unique and strong passwords.
  3. Token-based Authentication: Instead of relying solely on traditional username-password combinations, consider implementing token-based authentication, where a unique token is generated and validated for each user session.
  4. Role-Based Access Control (RBAC): Utilize RBAC to define and enforce user roles and permissions. This ensures that each user has the appropriate level of access based on their role within the application.
  5. Session Management: Implement secure session management practices, including session timeouts, secure session storage, and regular reauthentication for sensitive transactions.
  6. Continuous Monitoring and Logging: Regularly monitor and log authentication and authorization activities to detect and respond to suspicious behavior promptly.
  7. Security Testing: Conduct regular security assessments, including penetration testing and code reviews, to identify and address vulnerabilities in the authentication and authorization processes.
  8. User Education: Educate users about security best practices, such as avoiding password reuse, recognizing phishing attempts, and reporting suspicious activities.

Wrapping Up

Insecure authentication and authorization pose significant threats to the security of mobile applications. By understanding the risks, learning from real-world examples, and implementing robust mitigation techniques, developers and organizations can enhance the resilience of their mobile applications against these vulnerabilities. As the cybersecurity landscape evolves, staying proactive and adopting a holistic approach to security is essential to safeguard sensitive user data and maintain trust in the digital realm.


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