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Vulnerabilities in mobile applications offer a way to attack otherwise secure web sites, according to independent security consultancy SecureTest.

SecureTest has demonstrated how hackers can break into a mobile phone application, modify the code and use this as a tool to manipulate the website itself. The demo featured a fictitious gambling website with a horse-racing betting application and a standard Sony Ericsson P900 smartphone running freeware software tools. A series of input validation attacks on the mobile web application allowed SecureTest to modify the J2ME mobile phone betting application source code. The compromised application was then used as a route to access the website and modify the content of a database containing live betting odds.

The website used a firewall-protected server which had been further secured using the IIS Lockdown security tool. Despite only ports 80 (HTTP) and 443 being accessible, SecureTest was still able to carry out the attack. The server was running XP SP2 instead of Windows 2003 or Linux either of which might be a more common choice in practice. Nonetheless SecureTest said its demo shows how easy it is to exploit application flaws - rather than conventional OS vulnerabilities - to mount hacking attacks.

Almost half - 670 of 1,403 - of the security bugs logged by Symantec in the second half of 2004 affected web applications. These figures reflect the rising growth of applications as a source of security problems, which has been apparent for at least two years or so to security pros if not the wider IT community. SecureTest's research simply illustrates that vulnerabilities in mobile-based transactional web applications might be even easier to exploit than previously thought.

As a leading UK penetration testing firm, the issues SecureTest raises are more than a little self serving, though that doesn't mean its necessarily wrong. It advises end users to test web applications at the application layer and to consider all routes into a network, including mobile devices and even trusted connections with third parties, during regular security audits. ®

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