Enforcement of iOS’s App Transport Security Is Problematic

December 8, 2016 @ 10:30 AM
| |
2 min read

App Transport Security (ATS) is a method Apple uses to describe an app’s network security posture. It takes many factors and elements into account, such as HTTPS, Transport Layer Security (TLS), Perfect Forward Secrecy (PFS) and Certificate Transparency.

Apple stated several times at this year’s World Wide Developer’s Conference that it would enforce compliance with this standard at the beginning of 2017, even though it had been enabled by default since the days of iOS 9. The company also plans to begin reviewing non-ATS apps in its official App Store.

Companies Not Ready for App Transport Security

However, security firm Appthority conducted an analysis of the top 200 iOS apps found on enterprise devices and found that the industry has a long, long way to go when it comes to full compliance with ATS.

According to the study, 97 percent of the apps examined had used an exception in operation or other, less restrictive settings that could weaken the default ATS configuration. Additionally, 57 percent do not use ATS in any way, shape or form.

The idea behind ATS was to make apps communicate over the internet using encrypted HTTPS connections. Apple also wanted to force the use of strong encryption protocols and ciphers that had no known weaknesses. By providing the development community with the software to create these HTTPS connections, the tech giant hoped to avoid configuration errors that had routinely occurred with third-party solutions.

Apple’s Pipe Dream for 2017

HTTPS use has long been a sticking point for many popular apps. CSO Online reported that major apps such as Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Twitter, LinkedIn, Skype, Netflix, ESPN and more all use non-HTTPS communication.

These companies may have their reasons for putting off ATS. Apps talk not only to their own servers, but also to third-party advertising, market research, analytics and file hosting services. These external services may not allow HTTPS connections, but the program still needs to be able to communicate with them.

It seems that full ATS compliance by enterprise-worthy apps will not happen by the start of 2017. What Apple will do in response to this noncompliance remains to be seen.

Larry Loeb
Principal, PBC Enterprises

Larry Loeb has written for many of the last century's major "dead tree" computer magazines, having been, among other things, a consulting editor for BYTE mag...
read more