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Secrets Management for Mobile App Development

By following these best practices, developers can fortify their mobile apps against common security pitfalls associated with improper secrets management.

Feb 14, 2024
Chandler Mayo Avatar
Chandler Mayo
Senior Developer Advocate
Nic Manoogian Avatar
Nic Manoogian
Engineering Manager
Secrets Management for Mobile App Development
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Secrets Management for Mobile App Development

Importance of Secrets Management Tools in Mobile App Development

For mobile applications to deliver their intended functionality, they must engage in a delicate dance of communication with various backend services. This interaction is facilitated using secrets—typically API keys or service tokens. These keys are not just strings of characters; they are the lifelines connecting your app with the privileged access to services it relies upon.

The safeguarding of these secrets is paramount. Should they fall into the wrong hands, the consequences can range from mildly inconvenient to catastrophic. Unauthorized parties could use secrets to make frivolous requests, access sensitive data, deplete your API quotas, or, in a worst-case scenario, incur substantial financial costs on your behalf.

Secrets management should be the backbone of secure and efficient app operation, ensuring that your application secrets can be used in their intended environments without falling prey to the chaos of the bad actors.

Risks of Embedding Secrets in Mobile Apps

At first glance, hard-coding secrets directly into mobile apps or injecting them during build-time is a straightforward approach. After all, what could be simpler than storing an API key right within the app's code? However, this method bears significant risks that can compromise app security and integrity.

The crux of the issue lies in the fundamental truth that, much like their web frontend counterparts, mobile apps cannot securely harbor secrets. Despite developers' best efforts, frontends are inherently inspectable, and mobile app binaries are not impervious to reverse engineering. Today's tools and techniques available to bad actors are sophisticated and accessible, making extracting embedded secrets from apps relatively easy.

This vulnerability introduces several risks. Embedding a single third-party API key across all installations of your app essentially equates to handing out a universal set of credentials to every user. This poses a significant security risk and complicates auditing and managing access.

Embedding secrets within mobile apps is akin to burying a treasure chest in a sandbox. While it might be hidden, it's far from secure. The inherent risks of this practice underscore the need for more robust and safe alternatives to secrets management in mobile app development.

Alternatives to Embedding

Recognizing the pitfalls of embedding secrets directly within mobile apps paves the way for exploring more secure and sophisticated alternatives for managing sensitive values. The cornerstone of a robust security strategy is not just about keeping secrets hidden but ensuring they are accessible only under the right circumstances. This approach shifts the focus from embedding secrets in the app to leveraging a more controlled environment: your backend.

Leverage Your Backend for Secure Access to Secrets

Instead of storing secrets within the mobile app, a more secure method involves using your backend as a mediator. Your backend can make requests to third-party services on behalf of your app. By doing so, it holds the API keys securely, away from the prying eyes of potential attackers. This architecture not only secures the secrets but also makes it easier to monitor and control access.

Authentication and Auditing

With the backend serving requests for the app, user authentication can be managed more effectively. This setup allows for precise auditing and control, providing clear visibility into who accesses what and when. It's akin to having a well-guarded gate with a meticulous log of every entry and exit, ensuring that any attempt at unauthorized access can be detected and thwarted promptly to prevent data breaches.

Seamless Secret Rotation

Another significant advantage of this approach is the ease of rotating API keys. Since the keys are stored on the backend, updating them does not affect the mobile app directly. This seamless rotation mechanism is crucial for maintaining security without disrupting the user experience and can be done using automated processes. Imagine changing the locks on a door without needing to redistribute new keys to every tenant—a convenience that significantly enhances security.

Proxying Requests for Users

By acting as a proxy, the backend does more than just secure secrets; it also intermediates the communication between the mobile app and third-party services. This adds a layer of security and offers opportunities for optimizing and customizing the data flow. For instance, the backend can preprocess requests from the app or cache responses to improve performance.

Moving away from embedding secrets directly in mobile apps and towards a backend-centric approach offers a multifaceted solution. It enhances security, simplifies management, and provides a framework for efficient and controlled access to third-party services. This strategy ensures that secrets are not just hidden but actively protected and managed in a way that supports the app's functionality and user experience.

Secrets for Building and Publishing Your Mobile App

The lifecycle of a mobile app extends far beyond its runtime environment on user devices. An often overlooked yet critical phase is the build and publication process, which also necessitates meticulous secrets management. These secrets differ from those used by the app during operation, focusing instead on the credentials required for app signing and distribution.

Signing Credentials for App Binaries

Platforms like Android and iOS require that apps be signed with developer credentials before they can be distributed through app stores or other channels to ensure the integrity and authenticity of your app. These signing credentials, which include cryptographic keys and certificates, are used during the build and deploy process to confirm that the app has not been tampered with and comes from a trusted source. Mismanagement of these secrets can lead to security incidents, such as unauthorized app modifications or impersonations.

App Store Credentials and API Keys

Publishing an app involves interacting with app stores, each having its own set of credentials for app submission, updates, and management. These credentials, including passwords, API keys, and access tokens, are critical for automation tools in the distribution process, especially within Continuous Integration (CI) pipelines. Exposure of these credentials can compromise the ability to control app releases and allow unauthorized publishing or access to sensitive app data and metrics.

Best Cybersecurity Practices for Handling Build and Publishing Secrets

  1. Secure Storage: Store signing and app store credentials in a secure secrets manager. This centralized approach keeps the secrets safe and facilitates access control, auditing, and rotation.
  2. Limited Access: Only necessary personnel and systems can access these secrets. Applying the principle of least privilege minimizes the risk of accidental or malicious misuse.
  3. CI System Configuration: Configure your CI/CD pipeline to fetch these secrets securely at build time. This setup prevents secrets from being hardcoded in configuration files or source code, reducing the risk of exposure.
  4. Audit and Rotate: Regularly audit access permissions to these secrets and rotate them as needed. This practice helps mitigate the impact of potential leaks and ensures that former employees or compromised systems do not retain access.

In essence, mobile app development's build and publishing phase requires a dedicated focus on secrets management. By adopting secure practices for handling signing credentials and app store keys, developers can safeguard the integrity of their apps and maintain control over their distribution. This attention to detail ensures that the app reaches its audience through secure, authorized channels, reflecting the overall commitment to security and trustworthiness.

Best Practices for Managing Secrets in Mobile App Development

Let’s dive into the best practices tailored for the unique challenges and intricacies of managing secrets in mobile app development:

Embed Only Non-sensitive Configuration

  • Embedding with Caution: Embed only non-sensitive configuration data directly within the app. Treat any embedded information as potentially accessible to adversaries. This includes feature toggles or environment-specific variables that, while not secret, should be managed carefully to avoid misuse.

Leverage Backend Services as a Secure Proxy

  • Centralized API Key Management: Use backend services to interface with third-party APIs, securely storing sensitive API keys within your infrastructure. This method shields the keys from exposure and facilitates easier management and rotation.
  • Authentication and Authorization: Implement robust authentication mechanisms between your mobile app and the backend. This ensures that only authenticated requests are processed, enhancing the security and integrity of your app's communications.

Secure Secrets Storage

  • Use Secrets Management Solutions: Store all sensitive secrets, including API keys and service tokens, in a secure secrets manager. These systems are designed to provide encrypted storage, access controls, and audit trails, significantly reducing the risk of accidental exposure.
  • Environment Segregation: Maintain separate environments (e.g., development, staging, production) with their own set of secrets. This practice minimizes the risk of cross-environment leaks and simplifies the process of secrets rotation.

CI/CD Integration

  • Automate Secrets Access: Configure your Continuous Integration/Continuous Deployment (CI/CD) systems to securely access secrets at build time. This avoids embedding sensitive information in source code or version control systems, reducing the risk of exposure.
  • Secure Distribution Channels: Ensure that the process for building and publishing your app is secured, using encrypted channels for transferring binaries and employing signing keys securely managed by your CI/CD pipeline.

Regular Auditing and Rotation

  • Proactive Secrets Rotation: Regularly rotate secrets to limit the damage of any potential exposure. This includes API keys, service tokens, and credentials used by your mobile app and backend services.
  • Audit Trails and Monitoring: Implement monitoring and logging to track access to secrets. Regular audits can help detect unauthorized access or anomalies in usage patterns, enabling timely remediation.

By embracing these best DevOps practices, developers and organizations can fortify their mobile apps against common security pitfalls associated with improper secrets management. It's a proactive stance that not only safeguards your app and its users but also upholds the integrity and reputation of your development efforts. In the dynamic landscape of software development, where threats evolve as swiftly as technology does, staying vigilant in secrets management is not just recommended; it's imperative.

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