Black Hat 2011: Android attacks and smartphone privacy leaksDate: Aug 04, 2011
In this video from the Black Hat 2011 security conference, Neil Daswani, CTO and co-founder of Dasient talks about his conference presentation. Daswani and his team demonstrated a drive-by attack on Google Android smartphones using a vulnerability in Webkit and a coding error in Skype. The exploit bypasses the Android platform sandboxing security features, allowing an attacker to take complete control of the smartphone to steal contact information, account credentials and other sensitive data. While the hole used in Webkit has been patched, Daswani believes more weaknesses exist in the browser engine. In addition, Daswani explains the results of his team's behavioral analysis of more than 10,000 Android applications. The study found widespread privacy leaks.
Read the full transcript from this video below:
Black Hat 2011: Android attacks and smartphone privacy leaks
Interviewer: We're here with Neil Daswani. He's Chief
Officer at Dasient. You actually have a talk here at Black Hat, on some of
your team's vulnerability research, as well as some malware analysis. Let's
start with the Android attack that you're going to be talking about. How
serious is this? Give us a few details of what you guys came across.
Neil Daswani: So, I'll be giving a talk on Thursday. And I'll be covering some of
the findings from our team. We have been spending a little bit
more time looking at Android security. There are two key
contributions that we will be talking about. The first is that
if you look at most mobile malware, they've been spreading as
Trojans: programs that do one thing but claim to do
something else. And, if you look at malware distribution on the
web, a lot of malware gets spread by drive-by downloads.
So one question that we wanted to answer is "Is it possible to
spread malware on Android via the drive-by vector?" And so one
thing that the team has done is put together a prototype drive-
by for Android. We'll be talking about that, and how that works.
The second major contribution that we put forth in our work is
that we analyzed behaviorally 10,000 Android applications, and
identified that some of them were conducting privacy violations,
some of them were incurring some negative performance, and some
of them of course had interesting security implications. So,
we'll be covering both the prototype drive-by, as well as the
data that we learned from analyzing the 10,000 Android
Interviewer: Let's talk a little bit more about the prototype drive-by.
It takes advantage of two vulnerabilities, right? One in
WebKit and the other in Skype. I thought that Android has some
security features built in--Sandboxing being one--to kind of
prevent these kinds of attacks. What's going on here?
Neil Daswani: Sure. So, Android has had quite a bit of work put into its security.
That said, the operating system is a piece of software just like
any other, and software has vulnerabilities. So in the
prototype, what we have strived to look at it is that there's
been a lot of different component vulnerabilities--in WebKit, in
Skype, and in a number of other packages.
The question we wanted to answer is "Is it possible to glue
together these vulnerabilities to create a drive-by, much in the
same way that malware distributors do on the web?" We found that
that indeed was the case. And in this particular prototype we
used an issue vulnerability against WebKit as well as one
against Skype to steal the user's IM conversations off the
But one thing that I should note is that when you have
vulnerabilities in software like WebKit, it's possible not just
to steal the user's Skype/IM conversations, but to conduct other
kinds of attacks using vulnerabilities against other client-side
software, as well as against the operating system itself--to
take root access, and pretty much own the device.
Interviewer: Wow. Is this something that has already been patched, or
is this still in the wild, still available?
Neil Daswani: These two vulnerabilities that were used in this particular prototype
drive-by are both known vulnerabilities. That said, they are
patched on some systems but not others. One of the things that
we've been seeing in the Android and mobile device world is that
patching currently takes longer than patching does on desktop/PC
platforms. So, ten to twelve years ago, the world worked and
moved towards getting on a weekly patch schedule, for instance,
for Windows. And because of the complexity of carriers'
networks, operators, and all the different devices, the world is
still getting there. But that said, the good news is that
carriers have the opportunity to help create such a patch cycle
and keep it organized.
Interviewer: In terms of the iPhone, is the iPhone susceptible to drive-
by attacks as well?
Neil Daswani: The iPhone has had a drive-by attack published about it. There's for
instance a site called jailbreakme, and if you go to the
Jailbreak Me site on your iPhone, then supposedly you can get
your iPhone jailbroken just by loading the webpage there at that
site. So, drive-bys seem to be possible on iOS as well. IOS is a
complex piece of software, just like many others. I think that
thus far we haven't seen as many drive-by attacks on these
mobile platforms, but there's nothing to indicate that they
won't be soon to come, because of the fact that the devices are
getting used more and more so for mobile commerce and mobile
banking, and we'll have to work together to keep the world a
Interviewer: You mentioned patching, and how it's a little more
complicated for mobile platforms, especially I suppose Android,
right, because there's so many different devices out there, and
then you've got the carrier issue. Is that really what
Neil Daswani: That is one for the things that complicates it. If you look at the
Android world, there are a lot of different carriers, there are a
lot of different devices. Even though the OS is the same, there
are many different versions of the OS. So that makes uniform
At the same time, if you look at the Apple platform, Apple has a
lot more central control. So they are able to do updates and
patches in a more uniform way. It currently requires some level
of user permission. Each of the platforms has their own trade-
off. If you look at the Android platform, just about anybody can
write an application. You don't have to go through a very
complex vetting process. Some may hope that will lead to more
innovation and more applications.
At the same time, it also means that keeping the environment
locked down and keeping security in good shape will probably
take a little bit more work in the Android world. Of course, in
the iOS world, there's more centralization. What that may mean
is that there may be fewer applications that come out due to the
vetting process. But I think it will remain to be seen. We'll
have to see where things go.
Interviewer: Let's move on. This actually brings us to your analysis of
all of these applications, 10,000 Android applications. And you
found some interesting things, some privacy issues.
Neil Daswani: We certainly did. We conducted a behavioral analysis of these 10,000
Android applications and found a couple of things relating to
privacy that I think are definitely worth mentioning. Out of the
10,000 applications that we had analyzed, about 8% of them, or
just 840 of them, were sending the user's IMEI number off to a
remote server. The user's IMEI number is an ID that is tied to
their device, and basically it can tell the remote server things
like how long that user has been using the phone over time. It
can also be used for other reasons. In addition to the IMEI
number leaking in some of the cases, the IMSI number was also
leaked in some amount of the cases.
About 60 applications leaked their IMSI number. And both the
IMEI and the IMSI number could be used to clone the phone and/or
the SIM card that's being used. The reason that's not good of
course is that an attacker could potentially clone a SIM card
and charge calls to that user.
Now, I think that one of the things I should mention is that all
these applications of course do ask for permission from the user
to access these numbers. There are also permissions that get
asked for, to connect to other servers on the internet. But
users very often don't think . . .
Interviewer: They have no idea what these numbers are.
Neil Daswani: . . . about the implications, that's right. They just say "Yes, yes,
yes." I think that while there is a good permissions model in
place, we'll probably have to work together as a community to
make sure that the permissions model used continues to get refined and so
that there are third parties that help assess what all these
applications are doing.
Interviewer: Are some of these applications, are the developers
building these features in maliciously, or is this a case where
some of them are just poorly coding? What's going on there?
Neil Daswani: In most of these cases the application developers themselves probably
are not malicious. They just want to get their applications
built, they want to get them out there, and they often may not
be thinking through all the different privacy implications of
what's taking place. So, for instance, if they need a user ID to
identify a user, there are many other options besides using an
IMEI number or an IMSI number. They could connect to a server
and choose an ID at random. They could use the user's email
address. That would have the advantage, that as the user
switches devices, that user ID would stay with them even as they
go across devices. I think that over time application developers
will become more sophisticated about how they're coding and
building their applications, to not only provide better
functionality but also to maintain more privacy and maintain
Interviewer: Most of our viewers are enterprises. They're CISO's--security officers
at large, mid-size, even small enterprises. How much should they
be paying attention to what's going on in the mobile space,
especially with the different applications? We hear so much
about vulnerabilities, we hear the issue of mobile malware
coming. Not a whole lot of it yet, but how closely should people
that are in charge of some of these areas in the enterprise pay
Neil Daswani: I think that chief security officers and IT administrators should
absolutely be paying attention to some of these things going on
in the mobile world. For instance, in the Thursday presentation
we're going to be talking about privacy leaks, there's also
other data that could also leak off the device. If you look at
what's been taking place in the mobile malware space, if we look
at the first 6 months of 2011 there has been more mobile malware
released than in the several years prior to that. It's going to
continue to grow.
Chief security officers and IT administrators will need to make
sure that they put countermeasures in place to protect their
corporate data, so that even if mobile malware does come down to
a device--like a Droid drain, which attempts to take root access
on the device, and sends sensitive information about the device
off to a bot master--the chief security officers, the IT
administration can protect confidentiality and the integrity of
their corporate data, even in the midst of all these threats.
It's going to be really important for them to pay attention.
Interviewer: One last question. It seems like security vendors and a
lot for the security software can't really run effectively on
mobile platforms, due to some of the restrictions that both
Google and Apple put on the devices. I've heard some people call
for them to open up a little bit more. Is that really needed in
order for security software to run effectively on these devices?
Neil Daswani: I think the topic of how to protect all these devices from
traditional virus threats is going to be really important to
address. If you look at the operating systems, if you look at
the Android OS, it is very open in many ways. If you look at iOS,
they do provide access to a certain level of things. But I think
that also, before we get into the mechanisms, we need to think
about the general model. If you think about traditional
antivirus for PCs, some antivirus packages have a reputation for
slowing down your PC, and they can become resource intensive.
Now, if you look at the resources available on a mobile device--
in terms of the lower amount of CPU available, the less network
bandwidth available--in order for them to provide protections
we're going to have to think pretty hard about how to make sure
that antivirus protections can come to mobile phones, but
without all the issues from before with regards to performance
as well as detection capability.
We've seen that more and more traditional antivirus software on PCs has
been leveraging cloud-based scanning, so that the resources of
the server can be leveraged in order to help it do a scan
efficiently. And that's for a machine that has a good amount of
capability. If we look at mobile devices, I think it's going to
be even more important to take advantage of cloud-based scanning
techniques so that we can continue to keep the devices safe, but
not incur any performance penalties on them.
Interviewer: Well, Neil thanks very much. Appreciate it.
Neil Daswani: You're very welcome.