Huge Janus bug leaves Android apps open to unauthorized code modification

Android phone with apps

Researchers from security firm GuardSquare have discovered an Android vulnerability that allows for app code to be edited without affecting the apps' signature. Dubbed Janus, the vulnerability has massive potential for malicious use, and affects Android 5.0 onwards.

The security hole would allow an attacker to tweak an entirely legitimate app to behave maliciously without triggering any security alerts. Although vulnerability CVE-2017-13156 has been patched in December's Android update, very few people will have access to this security fix.

On the plus side, checks performed on apps that are submitted to Google Play should mean that anything obtained via official channels should be safe. The problem really affects apps that are downloaded from alternative stores, or that are sideloaded after downloading directly from websites.

GuardSquare explains the Janus problem:

The Janus vulnerability stems from the possibility to add extra bytes to APK files and to DEX files. On the one hand, an APK file is a zip archive, which can contain arbitrary bytes at the start, before its zip entries (actually more generally, between its zip entries). The JAR signature scheme only takes into account the zip entries. It ignores any extra bytes when computing or verifying the application's signature. On the other hand, a DEX file can contain arbitrary bytes at the end, after the regular sections of strings, classes, method definitions, etc. A file can, therefore, be a valid APK file and a valid DEX file at the same time.

The researchers go on to explain how this can be exploited:

Another key element is a seemingly harmless feature of the Dalvik/ART virtual machine. In theory, the Android runtime loads the APK file, extracts its DEX file and then runs its code. In practice, the virtual machine can load and execute both APK files and DEX files. When it gets an APK file, it still looks at the magic bytes in the header to decide which type of file it is. If it finds a DEX header, it loads the file as a DEX file. Otherwise, it loads the file as an APK file containing a zip entry with a DEX file. It can thus misinterpret dual DEX/APK files.

An attacker can leverage this duality. He can prepend a malicious DEX file to an APK file, without affecting its signature. The Android runtime then accepts the APK file as a valid update of a legitimate earlier version of the app. However, the Dalvik VM loads the code from the injected DEX file.

The type of signature scheme that developers used is key -- version 2 offers protection. As such, GuardSquare says: "Applications that have been signed with APK signature scheme v2 and that are running on devices supporting the latest signature scheme (Android 7.0 and newer) are protected against the vulnerability. Unlike scheme v1, this scheme v2 considers all bytes in the APK file. Older versions of applications and newer applications running on older devices remain susceptible. Developers should at least always apply signature scheme v2."

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