DHS Discovers Critical Cybersecurity Flaws in First Responder Apps

A pilot project initiated by the DHS found critical flaws in numerous mobile apps that public safety officials use for responding to emergencies.

WASHINGTON, D.C .— Thanks to a pilot project run by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T), numerous cybersecurity vulnerabilities discovered in mobile apps used by first responders have been patched.

In emergency and disaster situations, mobile devices and apps enable public-safety professionals to receive and share critical information in real-time. The department’s S&T Directorate established the pilot project in order to test how vulnerable smartphone apps used in the public safety sector are to cyberattack, including ransomware and spyware, and whether certain apps have coding vulnerabilities that could compromise device security, expose sensitive data, or allow for spying.

The pilot-testing project discovered potential security and privacy concerns — such as access to the device camera, contacts or SMS messages — in 32 of 33 popular apps that were tested. In all, 18 apps were discovered to have critical flaws such as hard-coded credentials stored in binary, issues with handling Secure Sockets Layer certificates or susceptibility to “man-in-the-middle” attacks.

Pilot project leaders worked with each app developer to remediate identified vulnerabilities, according to a press release. So far, 10 developers successfully remediated their apps, and as a result of the pilot project, the security and privacy concerns of 14 mobile apps were addressed.

“This pilot project illustrates the efficacy, benefits and value an ongoing app-testing program will provide to the public-safety community and the nation,” says Vincent Sritapan, S&T’s program manager for mobile security research and development. “During the testing phase, numerous cyber vulnerabilities were identified and remediated. This model can be used to ensure all apps used by the public-safety professionals are secured against cyberattacks and other security and privacy weaknesses.”

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