Ensure Mobile Real-Time Application Security with SSL/TLS

5 min read Michael Carroll on Nov 9, 2023

Mobile applications have become integral to our daily lives. From communication to financial transactions, real-time applications have revolutionized how we interact with technology. However, with the increased reliance on mobile apps comes a heightened need for security. 

Today we’re delving into the world of mobile application security—emphasizing the role of Secure Sockets Layer/Transport Layer Security (SSL/TLS) in safeguarding real-time applications.

What is SSL/TLS?

SSL and its successor TLS are cryptographic protocols designed to provide secure network communication. They serve as the bedrock of mobile application security, ensuring that data exchanged between mobile apps and servers remains confidential and protected from eavesdropping.

SSL and TLS share a common purpose but have evolved to address security vulnerabilities and enhance encryption. Some key components to know: 

  • Symmetric encryption: The same key is used for encryption and decryption. This method is efficient but requires a secure way to exchange keys.

  • Asymmetric encryption: Asymmetric encryption employs a pair of keys—a public key for encryption and a private key for decryption. This approach is more secure but computationally intensive.

  • Key exchange: Key exchange mechanisms facilitate the secure sharing of encryption keys between the client (mobile app) and the server.

  • SSL/TLS handshake: The SSL/TLS handshake process establishes a secure connection between the client and the server, involving encryption key negotiation and authentication.

While SSL and TLS share similar purposes, they have evolved, resulting in differences in how they operate:

  • Handshakes: SSL's handshake is explicit, while TLS's is implicit, streamlining with fewer steps and cipher suites for efficiency.

  • Alert messages: SSL has two unencrypted message types, warning and fatal. TLS alerts are encrypted and include close notify, signaling the end of the session.

  • Message authentication: SSL used the now-outdated MD5 for message authentication codes (MACs). TLS employs hash-based MAC (HMAC) for complex cryptography and enhanced security.

  • Cipher suites: TLS upgraded several algorithms from SSL due to security concerns.

  • SSL vs. TLS certificates: All SSL certificates are phased out and replaced by TLS certificates with iterative improvements. Their core function remains consistent.

  • Replacing SSL with TLS certificates: Despite naming conventions, TLS certificates support both SSL and TLS protocols. However, TLS 1.0 and TLS 1.1 are deprecated, causing a shift in requirements. AWS clients, for example, had to switch to TLS 1.2 or later by June 2023.

Securing real-time applications

Real-time applications are diverse and encompass a wide range of functionalities. Examples include instant messaging apps, video conferencing platforms, financial trading apps, and online gaming platforms. These applications face unique security challenges due to their need for instant, continuous data exchange.

For example, some instances of online mobile gaming require the player to make purchases within the game. This means connecting to bank accounts or credit cards and verifying addresses and other personal information. All this happens as the game progresses, and quick completion of the transaction is critical for player experience. TLS allows the game to safely verify identities, detect fraudulent activity more easily, and prevent leaks.

In another example, SSL/TLS enhances video conferencing security by encrypting data to prevent unauthorized access, ensuring server authentication to thwart impersonation attempts, and verifying data integrity to detect tampering during transmission. This encryption secures both audio and video streams, along with signaling data, protecting against eavesdropping and manipulation of conference content.

The role of SSL/TLS in real-time app security

The internet and the web originally lacked built-in privacy and security measures. Without protocols like TLS, web traffic can be intercepted, exposing sensitive information like passwords and credit card details. Fake websites can exploit this vulnerability, and criminals may hijack connections to breach corporate networks. It also puts companies at risk of compliance violations, such as the EU's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)PubNub supports end-to-end connection security to give developers the foundation they need to deliver secure mobile applications

TLS combats these threats through its core features:

  • Authentication: Servers must prove their legitimacy by supplying a certificate before making the TLS connection. In some cases, clients must also provide certificates.

  • Data privacy: TLS employs encryption algorithms to secure the data transported between a client and a server, safeguarding it from prying eyes.

  • Data integrity: TLS meticulously inspects each record it receives to confirm that the data has not been tampered with during transit. This is crucial because fake versions of popular websites can harvest personal data from unsuspecting users.

How to implement SSL/TLS in mobile apps

Properly implementing SSL/TLS in mobile apps ensures robust security. Here are essential considerations to enhance the security of your mobile applications:

  • Choosing the right SSL/TLS version: Opt for the latest TLS version, TLS 1.2 or preferably 1.3, to take advantage of advanced security features and fortify your app against known vulnerabilities.

  • Certificate management: When dealing with SSL/TLS certificates, follow these steps for effective management:

    • Obtaining SSL/TLS certificates: Secure your certificates from reputable Certificate Authorities (CAs) to guarantee their trustworthiness.

    • Verifying certificates: Verify the legitimacy of certificates to ward off potential threats from fraudulent connections.

    • Certificate pinning: Implement certificate pinning, a security measure that trusts only specific certificates or public keys, enhancing your app's security posture.

  • Configuring SSL/TLS settings: Ensure that the SSL/TLS settings in your mobile app are appropriately configured to balance security and performance. Disabling weak ciphers and embracing strong cipher suites is crucial for safeguarding sensitive data.

  • SSL/TLS libraries and frameworks: Use SSL/TLS libraries and frameworks specifically optimized for mobile app development. These libraries and frameworks streamline the integration of SSL/TLS security into your mobile app, reducing development complexity and enhancing security measures. Compare the available frameworks based on their security, documentation, compatibility, and performance to select one that suits your specific requirements.

Best practices for mobile app SSL/TLS security

To bolster mobile app SSL/TLS security, consider these best practices:

  • Enforce Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure (HTTPS): Ensure that all communications between the mobile app and the server are conducted over HTTPS.

  • Regular updates: Keep SSL/TLS libraries and dependencies up-to-date to mitigate vulnerabilities.

  • Strong encryption: Implement robust encryption algorithms and key lengths.

  • Monitoring: Continuously monitor for SSL/TLS-related anomalies or vulnerabilities.

  • User education: Educate users about the importance of SSL/TLS security, and encourage them to be vigilant.

Safeguarding real-time applications with SSL/TLS

Mobile application security is paramount in today's connected world. Real-time applications, in particular, require stringent security measures to protect user data and privacy. SSL/TLS ensures encrypted, authenticated, and tamper-proof communication between mobile apps and servers. By implementing SSL/TLS best practices and staying vigilant, developers can fortify their mobile apps against evolving threats, ensuring a secure user experience.

As a testament to the importance of SSL/TLS in securing real-time applications, platforms like PubNub leverage these protocols to provide secure and reliable real-time data streaming services. PubNub's commitment to supporting end-to-end connection security offers developers a trusted foundation for building real-time applications that prioritize user privacy and data integrity.

Contact us to find out how we can help improve your mobile app security. Better yet, schedule a free trial to see how our platform works.

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