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Agencies Get New Guidelines for OK’ing Apps

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The National Institute of Standards and Technology has prepared new agency guidelines for screening commercial apps before federal employees download them.

Third-party Android and iPhone apps have been known to harbor vulnerabilities -- either intentionally or inadvertently -- that could expose government data to outsiders. At the same time, agencies increasingly are using these apps for convenience and to enhance collaboration. 

So NIST this week provided the federal community with draft recommendations for vetting mobile apps. 

“Agencies and organizations need to know what a mobile app really does and to be aware of its potential privacy and security impact so they can mitigate any potential risks,” NIST computer scientist Tom Karygiannis said in a statement. "Many apps may access more data than expected and mobile devices have many physical data sensors continuously gathering and sharing information."

Last month, a potential vulnerability in the iPhone version of Instagram was discovered that could allow outsiders to hijack a user's account.  

Facebook also recently fixed glitches on its Android app that could have let hackers execute a denial-of-service attack or run up a victim’s mobile bill, according to Kaspersky Labs.

A Few Bad Apps: From Malicious Code to Drained Battery Power

As an example of the potential security holes in mobile apps, Karygiannis cited an employee sharing a photograph on a social media app that, unbeknownst to the user, is able to access confidential contacts. In a more menacing situation, apps with covert malicious code can record calls and forward them to eavesdroppers without the owner knowing. Weak apps can also simply drain battery power. 

NIST’s publication is not a how-to guide, but rather a backgrounder for agency managers who are contemplating whether to approve an app. The draft includes common testing requirements for security, performance and reliability, as well as tools and techniques for conducting the tests.

It takes into consideration a threat to one department office might need to be discounted where the benefit outweighs the risk. A public affairs office might need a social media app to engage citizens, but could temper some potential risks by blocking sharing permissions or changing device settings.

The 43-page document provides a list of vulnerabilities common in iPhone apps and a list of Android app weaknesses. A major threat to both versions: libraries that an app taps for graphics or other files can contain unexpected or malicious capabilities. 

Some attributes of an app cannot be tested. For example, it is hard to examine components with which the app communicates, such as an outside device, server or library, because licensing often allows developers to restrict access to these technologies.

NIST is accepting public comments on the draft until Sept. 18. 

(Image via Shutter_M/Shutterstock.com)

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