Security researchers from the University of Birmingham last week went public about security shortcomings in mobile banking apps that leave millions of users at a heightened risk of hacking. The researchers developed a tool called “Spinner” to perform semi-automated security testing of mobile phone apps . After running the tool on a sample of 400 security critical apps, they were able to identify a serious flaw in many banking apps including those offered by HSBC, NatWest and Co-op as well as Bank of America’s Health account app. The researchers found that although banks had been diligent in building security into their apps, one particular technology used – so-called certificate pinning – which normally improves security, meant that standard tests failed to detect a serious vulnerability that could let attackers take control of a victim’s online banking.
Dr Flavio Garcia, one the the researchers, explained: Certificate Pinning is a good technique to improve the security of a connection, but in this case, it made it difficult for penetration testers to identify the more serious issue of having no proper hostname verification. The security weak spot created a possible mechanism for an attacker – providing they are connected to the same network as the victim (eg, a Wi-Fi hotspot) – to perform a so-called “man in the middle attack” and retrieve the user’s credentials, such as username and password/PIN code . Other potential avenues for attack were also found, including the possibility for a wrong-un to do some in-app phishing in software offerings from Santander and Allied Irish bank. These attacks would have allowed the rogue take over part of the screen while the app was running and use this to phish for the victim s login credentials.
All the fixings
The University of Birmingham researchers worked with the banks involved, and the UK government’s National Cyber Security Centre to fix all the vulnerabilities, and the current versions of all the apps affected by this pinning vulnerability are now secure. Banking customers using the same old Apple device that the researchers used (probably a 1st generation iPad, which is limited to iOS 5.1.1) should probably think about using something else for their banking, according to app security firm Arxan. Winston Bond, technical director EMEA at the firm, urged banks to review the research and push updates to their customers.
Banks should fix vulnerabilities as quickly as they can and push updates to their customers, Bond said .
One of the issues highlighted by this research is that users of older Apple devices, which are restricted to older iOS versions, can’t pick up any updates once the app developer moves the minimum OS version for the app beyond their version . They are stuck on the last compatible version, with whatever bugs and vulnerabilities that includes.
For banks and other organisations to protect themselves from outdated apps, every major app developer has to balance the relentless pressure to adopt the latest iOS features against the need to keep updating the users of older devices, he added. More robust cryptographic technology deployments by banks would also guard against attacks even in cases where users are connecting into services from ageing or not fully patched devices.
Certificate pinning is a way to make sure that a mobile app will only talk directly to the server that it is meant to, Bond explained . All the communications traffic is strongly encrypted and it can only be understood when it gets to the right place . In this case, it stops anyone getting between you and the bank and seeing how much money you have in your account or changing the details when you tell the bank to pay someone.
“There are several ways to implement certificate pinning, with some trade-offs between flexibility and security, he added.
It’s also worth noting that the University of Birmingham team managed to carry out these attacks while following the app store licence agreement rules which prohibit reverse-engineering or modification of apps . Real attackers won’t play so nicely. Mark James, a security specialist at anti-malware firm ESET, added: Using financial services through your mobile device, either a smartphone or tablet, should ideally be done through your cellular mobile connection if possible, or if not, then through a VPN to minimise the chances of your connection being hijacked.”
Some initial results were given in the paper A Security Analysis of TLS in Leading UK Banking Apps presented at the Conference on Financial Cryptography and Data Security in January .
The full results were given in the paper Spinner: Semi-Automatic Detection of Pinning without Hostname Verification which was presented last week at the 33rd Annual Computer Security Applications Conference in Orlando, Florida in the US.
Controversial security firm ‘nothing but trouble’ at retail park…and we didn’t even want them here, says manager
A controversial security firm has been nothing but trouble at a North Wales retail park, where they were sent by the council without the permission of the landowner, says the manager. Alan Barker, one of the bosses at Llandudno s Mostyn Champneys, said there was no need for officers from Kingdom to visit the retail park as it has its own cleaners. But he said the St Helens-based firm was instructed by Conwy council to issue litter fines at Mostyn Champneys, despite no consent being given by the park s owners.
The Mostyn Champneys retail park in Llandudno
In an email to Llandudno resident Neil Jones, which was posted in the online group North Wales Against Kingdom Security by Mr Jones, Mr Barker said: We have had nothing but trouble with this particular company, who were instructed by the local authority to enter our property and land without our consent. Mr Barker, who is the manager of Mostyn Champneys and Broughton Shopping, told the Daily Post: We ve had quite a number of complaints from shoppers and our tenants about Kingdom Security being on Mostyn Champneys.
Apparently, Conwy county council instructed them to go there without consulting us.
Most of the shops on Mostyn Champneys are discount stores so our shoppers probably can t afford the 75 fine.
We ve exchanged a number of phone calls and emails with Conwy council, and we ve been told Kingdom have now stopped operating there.
There was no need for them to be there in the first place as we have our own cleaners on the site. Aberconwy AM Janet Finch-Saunders said: These reports are most alarming .
Conwy council need to take a close and urgent look at the guidance issued to Kingdom, and ensure they are only operating on permitted land.
British Land, who manage Mostyn Champneys, have confirmed to me previously that Kingdom Security do not have any remit to issue Fixed Penalty Notices on Mostyn Champneys retail park.
I trust the council will take forward the concerns raised by British Land and constituents here as appropriate, and I urge full transparency and openness from the council on this matter.
I would also urge the council to bring forward their promised public consultation on Public Spaces Protection Orders for which constituents have been waiting for five months. A Conwy council spokeswoman said: Littering and dog fouling is unacceptable at any location; it s not only anti-social but also illegal.
The council has a duty to help reduce such behaviour and to keep the county as free from litter as possible.
The offence of littering occurs, under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 Section 87, if a person throws down, drops or otherwise deposits any litter in any place open to the air and leaves it.
Whether land is publicly or privately owned, permission to enter land to enforce the relevant legislation is not required.
We work with landowners to ensure the duties of both the council and landowners can be met.
If a landowner/occupier does not want enforcement on their land, we will consider the request after discussing their waste management plan to ensure that any litter dropped or waste generated on their land would be cleared and removed correctly to protect adjoining streets and public spaces that people are entitled to enjoy litter-free.
This has been requested at Mostyn Champneys. Kingdom works for more than 35 councils across the UK, including Anglesey, Conwy, Denbighshire, Flintshire and Wrexham.
The firm has drawn criticism for the tactics they are alleged to use to issue fines of up to 75 for littering.
Security services missed a string of chances to bring in Salman Abedi in the months prior to the Manchester bombing, it has emerged. But he struck just days before a scheduled intelligence meeting about his activities was due to take place. An independent review into the attack concluded it is conceivable the atrocity could have been averted if the cards had fallen differently . Despite this, MI5 maintain it is ‘unlikely’ the plot could have been stopped.
Compiled by David Anderson QC, the report brings together the results of eight internal reviews by MI5 and the police, following the wave of attacks between March and June which included the Manchester bomb. The document lays bare how in the months and weeks before the attack there were a series of missed opportunities to confront Abedi – who had been on security services radar for THREE years and suspected of links to ISIS for at least two.
(Image: Joel Goodman)
We now know that MI5 received intelligence about Abedi that has turned out to be significant – but wasn t thought to be at the time . As a result, he was not under investigation at the time of the attack – and he remained a closed subject of interest . We now know he could have been placed on ports action after he travelled to Libya in April 2017 – a step which would have triggered an alert when he came to Manchester .
This would have allowed him to be questioned and searched at the airport under the Terrorism Act.
Abedi was not placed on ports action however – and killed 22 people, injuring hundreds of others, at a Manchester Arena concert shortly after returning to the city from Libya. Describing this, the report says an opportunity was missed by MI5 to place Salman Abedi on ports action . The report says that on two occasions in 2017 MI5 came by intelligence which had its true significance been properly understood would have triggered an investigation into Abedi.
(Image: Ian Cooper)
While the significance of intelligence was not fully appreciated at the time , the review concludes in retrospect , it can be seen to have been highly relevant to the planned attack . A subsequent data review of intelligence about 20,000 people identified Abedi as among a small number of people worth further examination – but Abedi struck nine days before a meeting was due to be held about this.
A meeting (arranged before the attack) was due to take place on 31 May 2017: Salman Abedi s case would have been considered, together with the others identified . The attack intervened on 22 May, it states.
Despite these findings, the report says that it is unknowable whether an investigation would have pre-empted and thwarted Abedi s attack, adding: MI5 assesses it would not. Describing MI5 s conclusions, the author says after detailed consideration of their intelligence – the intelligence whose true significance was not appreciated – it is unlikely Abedi would have been stopped.
(Image: Joel Goodman)
The report reveals for the first time that Abedi had been on security services radar for three years. In 2014 he was actively investigated by MI5 – for six months – when it was thought he might have been acting suspiciously with a second subject of interest . However, because of his limited engagement with persons of national security concern , he was classed as low risk.
The following year – in October 2015 – his case was reopened because he was suspected of contact with an Islamic State figure in Libya . The case was closed the same day when it transpired any contact had not been direct.
Despite this, the decision not to re-open the investigation into Abedi in 2017, following the new intelligence, was described in the report as finely-balanced and understandable .
There is a high degree of inherent uncertainty in speculating as to what might or might not have been discovered if an investigation had been opened on the basis of the new intelligence , MI5 s internal review, detailed in the report, concluded. MI5 s review also concluded: On the clear balance of professional opinion, successful pre-emption of the gathering plot would have been unlikely.
(Image: Joel Goodman)
The review – ordered by government several weeks after the May 22 attack – looked at what the intelligence services knew ahead of the Manchester bombing, as well as the earlier one at Westminster, and the ones at London Bridge and Finsbury Park in the weeks afterwards. While complimentary of both intelligence and counter-terror services in many respects, the report does suggest that Manchester s attack in particular could potentially have been averted.
It is not the purpose of the internal reviews, or of this report, to cast or apportion blame, it adds.
But though investigative actions were for the most part sound, many learning points have emerged .
It is conceivable that the Manchester attack in particular might have been averted had the cards fallen differently.