iOS Security: App security in iOS and iPadOS - code signing, entitlement and sandbox etc.

iOS Security: App security in iOS and iPadOS - code signing, entitlement and sandbox etc.

App security overview for iOS and iPadOS

Unlike other mobile platforms, iOS and iPadOS don’t allow users to install potentially malicious unsigned apps from websites or to run untrusted apps. At runtime, code signature checks that all executable memory pages are made as they are loaded to help ensure that an app hasn’t been modified since it was installed or last updated.

After an app is verified to be from an approved source, iOS and iPadOS enforce security measures designed to prevent it from compromising other apps or the rest of the system

App code signing process in iOS and iPadOS

Mandatory code signing

After the iOS or iPadOS kernel has started, it controls which user processes and apps can be run. To help ensure that all apps come from a known and approved source and haven’t been tampered with, iOS and iPadOS require that all executable code be signed using an Apple-issued certificate. Apps provided with the device, like Mail and Safari, are signed by Apple. Third-party apps must also be validated and signed using an Apple- issued certificate. Mandatory code signing extends the concept of chain of trust from the operating system to apps and helps prevent third-party apps from loading unsigned code resources or using self-modifying code

How developers sign their apps

Developers can sign their apps through certificate validation (through the Apple Developer Program). They can also embed frameworks inside their apps and have that code validated with an Apple-issued certificate (through a team identifier string

  • Certificate validation: To develop and install apps in iOS or iPadOS devices, developers must register with Apple and join the Apple Developer Program. The real-world identity of each developer, whether an individual or a business, is verified by Apple before their certificate is issued. This certificate enables developers to sign apps and submit them to the App Store for distribution. As a result, all apps in the App Store have been submitted by an identifiable person or organization, serving as a deterrent to the creation of malicious apps. They have also been reviewed by Apple to help ensure they generally operate as described and don’t contain obvious bugs or other notable problems. In addition to the technology already discussed, this curation process gives users confidence in the quality of the apps they buy.

  • Code signature validation: iOS and iPadOS allow developers to embed frameworks inside of their apps, which can be used by the app itself or by extensions embedded within the app. To protect the system and other apps from loading third-party code inside of their address space, the system performs a code signature validation of all the dynamic libraries that a process links against at launch time. This verification is accomplished through the team identifier (Team ID), which is extracted from an Apple-issued certificate. A team identifier is a 10-character alphanumeric string—for example, 1A2B3C4D5F. A program may link against any platform library that ships with the system or any library with the same team identifier in its code signature as the main executable. Since the executables shipping as part of the system don’t have a team identifier, they can only link against libraries that ship with the system itself.

Verifying enterprise apps

Businesses also have the ability to write in-house apps for use within their organization and distribute them to their employees. Businesses and organizations can apply to the Apple Developer Enterprise Program (ADEP) with a D-U-N-S number. Apple approves applicants after verifying their identity and eligibility. After an organization becomes a member of ADEP, it can register to obtain a provisioning profile that permits in-house apps to run on devices it authorizes.

Users must have the provisioning profile installed to run the in-house apps. This helps ensure that only the organization’s intended users are able to load the apps onto their iOS and iPadOS devices. Apps installed through mobile device management (MDM) are implicitly trusted because the relationship between the organization and the device is already established. Otherwise, users have to approve the app’s provisioning profile in Settings. Organizations can restrict users from approving apps from unknown developers.

On first launch of any enterprise app, the device must receive positive confirmation from Apple that the app is allowed to run.

Security of runtime process in iOS and iPadOS


All third-party apps are “sandboxed,” so they are restricted from accessing files stored by other apps or from making changes to the device. Sandboxing is designed to prevent apps from gathering or modifying information stored by other apps. Each app has a unique home directory for its files, which is randomly assigned when the app is installed. If a third-party app needs to access information other than its own, it does so only by using services explicitly provided by iOS and iPadOS.

System files and resources are also shielded from the users’ apps. Most iOS and iPadOS system files and resources run as the nonprivileged user “mobile,” as do all third-party apps. The entire operating system partition is mounted as read-only.

Unnecessary tools, such as remote login services, aren’t included in the system software, and APIs don’t allow apps to escalate their own privileges to modify other apps or iOS and iPadOS.

Use of entitlements

Access by third-party apps to user information, and to features such as iCloud and extensibility, is controlled using declared entitlements. Entitlements are key-value pairs that are signed in to an app and allow authentication beyond runtime factors, like UNIX user ID. Since entitlements are digitally signed, they can’t be changed. Entitlements are used extensively by system apps and daemons to perform specific privileged operations that would otherwise require the process to run as root. This greatly reduces the potential for privilege escalation by a compromised system app or daemon. In addition, apps can only perform background processing through system-provided APIs. This enables apps to continue to function without degrading performance or dramatically impacting battery life.

Address Space Layout Randomization

Address Space Layout Randomization (ASLR) helps protect against the exploitation of memory corruption bugs. Built-in apps use ASLR to help randomize all memory regions upon launch. Randomly arranging the memory addresses of executable code, system libraries, and related programming constructs reduces the likelihood of many exploits.

For example, a return-to-libc attack attempts to trick a device into executing malicious code by manipulating memory addresses of the stack and system libraries. Randomizing the placement of these makes the attack more difficult to execute, especially across multiple devices. Xcode, and the iOS or iPadOS development environments, automatically compile third-party programs with ASLR support turned on.

Execute Never feature

Further protection is provided by iOS and iPadOS using ARM’s Execute Never (XN) feature, which marks memory pages as nonexecutable. Memory pages marked as both writable and executable can be used only by apps under tightly controlled conditions: The kernel checks for the presence of the Apple-only dynamic code-signing entitlement. Even then, only a single mmap call can be made to request an executable and writable page, which is given a randomized address. Safari uses this functionality for its JavaScript JIT compiler.

Supporting extensions in iOS, iPadOS, and macOS

iOS, iPadOS, and macOS allow apps to provide functionality to other apps by providing extensions. Extensions are special-purpose signed executable binaries packaged within an app. During installation, the system automatically detects extensions and makes them available to other apps using a matching system.

Extension points

A system area that supports extensions is called an extension point. Each extension point provides APIs and enforces policies for that area. The system determines which extensions are available based on extension point–specific matching rules. The system automatically launches extension processes as needed and manages their lifetime. Entitlements can be used to restrict extension availability to particular system apps. For example, a Today view widget appears only in Notification Center, and a sharing extension is available only from the Sharing pane. Examples of extension points are Today widgets, Share, Actions, Photo Editing, File Provider, and Custom Keyboard.

How extensions communicate

Extensions run in their own address space. Communication between the extension and the app from which it was activated uses interprocess communications mediated by the system framework. They don’t have access to each other’s files or memory spaces.

Extensions are designed to be isolated from each other, from their containing apps, and from the apps that use them. They are sandboxed like any other third-party app and have a container separate from the containing app’s container. However, they share the same access to privacy controls as the container app. So if a user grants Contacts access to an app, this grant is extended to the extensions that are embedded within the app but not to the extensions activated by the app.

How custom keyboards are used

Custom keyboards are a special type of extension because it’s enabled by the user for the entire system. After it’s enabled, a keyboard extension is used for any text field except the passcode input and any secure text view. To restrict the transfer of user data, custom keyboards run by default in a very restrictive sandbox that blocks access to the network, to services that perform network operations on behalf of a process, and to APIs that would allow the extension to exfiltrate typing data. Developers of custom keyboards can request that their extension have Open Access, which lets the system run the extension in the default sandbox after getting consent from the user.

MDM and extensions

For devices enrolled in a mobile device management (MDM) solution, document and keyboard extensions obey Managed Open In rules. For example, the MDM solution can help prevent users from exporting a document from a managed app to an unmanaged Document Provider, or help prevent them from using an unmanaged keyboard with a managed app.

Additionally, app developers can prevent the use of third-party keyboard extensions within their app.

App protection and app groups in iOS and iPadOS

Adopting Data Protection in apps

The iOS Software Development Kit (SDK) for iOS and iPadOS offers a full suite of APIs that make it easy for third-party and in-house developers to adopt Data Protection and help ensure the highest level of protection in their apps. Data Protection is available for file and database APIs, including NSFileManager, CoreData, NSData, and SQLite.

The Mail app database (including attachments), managed books, Safari bookmarks, app launch images, and location data are also stored through encryption, with keys protected by the user’s passcode on their device. Calendar (excluding attachments), Contacts, Reminders, Notes, Messages, and Photos implement the Data Protection entitlement Protected Until First User Authentication. User-installed apps that don’t opt in to a specific Data Protection class receive Protected Until First User Authentication by default.

Joining an App Group

Apps and extensions owned by a given developer account can share content when configured to be part of an App Group. It’s up to the developer to create the appropriate groups on the Apple Developer Portal and include the desired set of apps and extensions.

Once configured to be part of an App Group, apps have access to the following:

  • A shared on-volume container for storage, which stays on the device as long as at least one app from the group is installed
  • Shared preferences
  • Shared keychain items

The Apple Developer Portal helps ensure that App group IDs (GIDs) are unique across the app ecosystem.

Verifying accessories in iOS and iPadOS

The Made for iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch (MFi) licensing program provides vetted accessory manufacturers access to the iPod Accessories Protocol (iAP) and the necessary supporting hardware components.

When an MFi accessory communicates with an iOS or iPadOS device using a Lightning or USB-C connector or through Bluetooth, the device asks the accessory to prove it’s been authorized by Apple by responding with an Apple-provided certificate, which is verified by the device. The device then sends a challenge, which the accessory must answer with a signed response. This process is entirely handled by a custom integrated circuit (IC) that Apple provides to approved accessory manufacturers and is transparent to the accessory itself.

Accessories can request access to different transport methods and functionality—for example, access to digital audio streams over the Lightning or USB-C cable, or location information provided over Bluetooth. An authentication IC is designed to ensure that only approved accessories are granted full access to the device. If an accessory doesn’t support authentication, its access is limited to analog audio and a small subset of serial (UART) audio playback controls.

AirPlay also uses the authentication IC to verify that receivers have been approved by Apple. AirPlay audio and CarPlay video streams use the MFi-SAP (Secure Association Protocol), which encrypts communication between the accessory and device using AES128 in counter (CTR) mode. Ephemeral keys are exchanged using ECDH key exchange (Curve25519) and signed using the authentication IC’s 1024-bit RSA key as part of the Station-to-Station (STS) protocol.

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