Imagine you are coding on your newest, super awesome Android App. You compile your work and upload it to the Google Playstore. Because you have put so much work in it and because it is so super awesome, you decide to ask for a small payment of 2€ to be able to buy some food after work.
Your App is so good, that its userbase is getting bigger and bigger each day. After a few days, you notice that your App is not getting bought anymore though. “Why?”, you may ask. You search for reasons and find the solution: Someone has reuploaded your App. They have removed your license checks, they have removed your copyright information, they have rebranded the App.
This is possible because Java, the standard language for Android Apps, compiles to Bytecode. Bytecode is an “in between” thing - it is not really high-level like Java anymore, but it is also not as low level as Assembly. The Java Bytecode (and the Dalvik Bytecode, which is used for Android Applications) may not be as easily readable as Java sourcecode anymore, but with a bit of thought and an additional hour or two of reading, good developers can still understand and modify the code. The bigger issue is, tools can do it too.
Software like jadx take Java Bytecode as input and recreate the original Java sourcecode almost perfectly. They’ll even give variables, methods and classes the correct names - this information is included in the Java Bytecode as well.
The process of reverse engineering these applications is so easy, because the process of generating the bytecode has this inherent weakness of the output still being very similar to the original source code.
The “solution”: Obfuscation
Luckily, there is a way to slow down those annoying app thieves. It is a concept called “obfuscation”. The Cambridge Dictionary explains obfuscation as “to make something less clear and harder to understand, especially intentionally”. That is exactly what we need. Look at the following short method:
Now look at the same method, after an obfuscation tool has obfuscated method and variable names and moved some of the numbers to other places:
It is much harder to understand - even seasoned developers take longer to realize exactly what this piece of code does. Especially if it is only one method in a few hundreds or thousands and all the others are obfuscated using the same methods. In case of Android Apps, there is an obfuscator included in the build toolchain, ProGuard. Enabling it is as easy as setting two settings in the gradle build file (minifyEnabled and proguardFiles).
Renaming, the technique shown above is just one of the ways obfuscation is done nowadays. Others include:
Encryption: Applying XOR (or stronger encryption) to strings or other data hides it from plain sight. A string might be
after using XOR with the key ‘secretpass’ it will only show as:
This will not help against someone who really tries to understand your application, as there are mulitple ways to figure out the former string, but it will slow them down.
Control Flow Modifications: There are quite a few Control Flow Modification techniques when it comes to obfuscation. Adding bogus instructions that in the end evaluate to not changing anything, adding dead branches, increasing how often a loop is run, putting instructions from outside a loop inside it or the other way round, etc.
might be changed to:
This example shows a few techniques. First of all, a dead if has been included. The variable b will never be smaller than 0, so the part “b += 7” will never be evaluated. Also, the simple calculation has been put inside a loop, which now adds instead of multiplying. To make things a bit more confusing, instead of moving the complete multiplication to the loop, the first iteration of the loop has been left outside (so called “loop unrolling”).
Packing: Packers compress and/or encrypt the complete code. They then prepend their own start routine, which will unpack the original application and run it. Commonly used packers are UPX and VMProtect for Binaries or pack200 for Java.
There are quotation marks around “solution”
Yes, obfuscation is not the perfect solution. Obfuscation will not stop someone dedicated to reverse engineering your application, but it will slow them down. It will also stop script kiddies, or people who do not feel like it is worth the hard work. So, obfuscation will slow potential attackers down, which is definitely worth your time, especially when obfuscating is as easy as it is in the android toolchain. It can not fully protect your intellectual property, but it increases the time needed to steal it.
In a few days or weeks, I will post an article about automatically reversing obfuscation. I cannot do this before the paper to my master thesis is released, so it may take a bit of time. This basically is an introduction post to the deobfuscation topic!
That’s it for today! See you next time. Also, take a look at some obfuscation contests (yes, obfuscation is a sport, kind of) like the International Obfuscated C Code Contest (IOCCC).
Recently I had the opportunity to work with a Photon Device by Particle. These devices are small microprocessors1 with a few I/O pins. The special feature of the Photon is that it also includes a Wi-Fi chip2, so you can connect it to your local wireless network and to the cloud without having to add any additional hardware.
First of all, it is super easy to get into developing for it. The first steps and tutorials are easy to follow and everything pretty much works out of the box. Particle provides a web based IDE, which allows for new developers to just try coding for the Photon out without having to install an application on your PC. The web based IDE includes a “library” feature, which makes it possible to add libraries for common hardware to your project with two clicks. There are some for common NFC readers, displays, network protocols and others. You can compile and flash your code to your device with a single click, which automatically reboots the Photon so that it is running the most recent version of your code instantly.
So, for hobby programmers and prototypes the Particle Photon is a charm. It leads to quick results - I have had my first LED blinking within a few minutes.
Now, as with most products, this one too has some issues. It would have been too nice to be true otherwise. While the Photon is awesome for prototyping and quick development, I do not think it is suited for larger applications. There are a few reasons for it, most of which could be solved by some additional effort by Particle, so let us hope for improvement. Let us look at the list of issues I have encountered:
- Local IDE: While the local IDE is nice for longer development, especially when using version control tools like git, it has its difficulties. For example, while using the local IDE, only source files in the root directory of your application are compiled and flashed. No subdirectories. This is not a huge issue in smaller projects, but when you have developed for a while, things get… messy.
- Error Messages: Let me explain this one by example. Imagine you have just added a big lib to your application, added the necessary calls to it and started compiling. You see an error message and think “Well, there had to be something”. But instead of giving any useful information, the error message you see is something along the lines of “Could not execute…”. The rest of it is missing. Took me quite a while to figure out that this happens when there are two “.ino” files in the root directory. ino files are the files in which the compiler searches for the two entry point functions “setup” and “loop”. If two of those exist, the compiler does not know which one is the correct one and fails. Similar error messages are printed when you give the same filename to a .ino file and a .cpp file.
- Resetting to a working firmware: When your firmware is broken and e.g. runs into an endless loop, it is sometimes hard to get the Photon back to a working state. Having to manually put the device into DFU mode and then flashing over USB is overly complicated in my opinion.
It should be rather easy to solve most of these issues. However, while they are not fixed, the Particle Photon will just stay a prototyping device for me.
I really hope for them to improve their devices. Just recently they have added the RedBear Duo to their store, which is a similar device as the Photon but also contains a chip for Bluetooth Low Energy. If I get the chance I will give the RedBear a try as well.
That wraps it up for today. Continue developing awesome software!
I am ohaz, a software engineer with focus on IT-Security at Method Park Engineering GmbH.
In this blog, I will write about curious stuff I stumble upon, about social- and software-engineering and about everything IT-Security related. Also, due to me working on it very often, there will be some posts about IoT as well.