Research uncovers vulnerabilities in banking apps

Researchers have found a security flaw that had 10 million banking app users at risk.
Researchers from the University of Birmingham have developed a tool 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 critical vulnerability in banking apps; including apps from HSBC, NatWest, Co-op and Bank of America Health.

This vulnerability allowed an attacker, who is connected to the same network as the victim (e.g., public Wifi or corporate), to perform a so called “Man in the Middle Attack” and retrieve the user’s credentials such as username and password/pin code. The researchers found that the banks had put a lot of effort into the security of their apps, however one particular technology used – so called “certificate pinning” – which normally improves security, had meant that standard tests failed to detect a serious vulnerability that could let attackers take control of a victim’s online banking.

The tests found that apps from some of the largest banks in the world contain this flaw, which if exploited, could have enabled an attacker to decrypt, view and modify network traffic from users of the app. An attacker with this capability could thereby perform any operation which is normally possible on the app.

Other attacks were also found, including “in app phishing attacks” against Santander and Allied Irish bank. These attacks would have let an attacker take over part of the screen while the app is running and use this to phish for the victim’s login credentials. The 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.

The researchers recommend that all users of banking apps ensure that they are always using the most recent version of the app, and that they always install upgrades as soon as they are offered. The research was carried out by Dr Tom Chothia, Dr Flavio Garcia and PhD candidate Chris McMahon Stone, who are all members of the Security and Privacy Group at the University of Birmingham