How secure is it to call “secret” URLs in an iOS app?

How secure is it to call “secret” URLs in an iOS app?

We want to use a web service in our app which obviously requires to call a URL. It’s not HTTPS, just plain old HTTP, using NSURLConnection.
The problem is: This web service is VERY expensive and every thousand calls costs us real money. The fear is that someone could figure out which URL we call and then misuse that, letting the costs explode. There is no way for us to track if a call to that web service was legitimate.
We’re calculating based on how many apps we sell, multiplied by an assumption of how often that app will be used per user in average. We have some good statistics on which we base our assumptions.
Are there known ways of figuring out which URL an app is calling on the Internet to retrieve information?

Solutions/Answers:

Solution 1:

You could easily use a network sniffer while the phone is on WiFi to figure out this information. It sounds like it is actually critical that you use SSL with some sort of secure token in the URL.

If this is not an option perhaps you can provide your own proxy service that would use SSL and security tokens? Proxy also grants the ability to throttle requests and block users known to be malicious. Throttling puts an upper bound on the expense each user can incur within a given time interval. Another benefit of a proxy is that it allows one to gather statistics and measure the costs incurred by different users facilitating malicious user detection and business planning. Proxy could also save you some money if the service behind it is stateless by adding a cache that would remove a lot of expensive calls.

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Solution 2:

If the Web service is not encrypted, it would be trivial to use a proxy to intercept the Web requests made by the phone. If the expensive Web service does not offer at least some form of basic authentication, I would seriously reconsider including its URL in a public app.

Solution 3:

Using plain URLs is a sure way of letting script kiddies run you out of business. If there is no way for you to track if a call to the expensive web service was legitimate, set up your own web service that fronts the real web service to make sure that your own web service can verify the legitimacy of the call before forwarding the request to the real web service.

Solution 4:

Yes, there’s plenty of ways to do this. For one example, hook up the iPhone to a wifi network, in which the router has a transparent proxy. Examine the proxy’s logs. You’ll see all URLs. Depends how determined your users are, but this is rather easy.

Solution 5:

Ignoring the fact that people who jailbreak their devices could possibly look at your application, I believe it is possible to examine traffic like any other device (laptop, tablet, etc.) if someone was sniffing traffic over a WiFi hotspot using applications such as WireShark. However, I doubt there would be much risk of this over a cellular 3G network.

Solution 6:

Good question.

As many have said, yes, it’s easy to figure out the urls your app requests.

Note about HTTPS:
But since you are using HTTPS you are okay because over HTTPs the domain will be obscured to the IP address, and people cannot see the URL query string parameters. For example, if your URL was https://somewebsite.com?uid=mylogin&pass=mypass, they definitely won’t be able to see “uid=mylogin&pass=mypass”, and they probably can only see the IP address, not the domain name itself. (see https://serverfault.com/questions/186445/can-an-attacker-sniff-data-in-a-url-over-https)

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Sidenote:
Might be safe to assume that Apple performs some sort of HTTP request diagnostics when they review your app — which would make sense because it’s in their best interest to try and figure out what your app does from many angles.

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