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8/31/2011
04:59 PM
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New Free Tools Simplify Analysis Of Android Malware

What did you do over your summer break? Two graduate students wrote tools that address heightened concern over eventual attacks against the Android platform

The Honeynet Project has helped create two tools aimed at making Android malware analysis simpler and free -- and, ultimately, help better secure the wildly popular mobile platform.

The new open-source tools were developed under the Google Summer of Code project, a program where students from around the world spend their summer breaks writing code for open-source software. Two students under the mentorship of The Honeynet Project focused on Android malware: One wrote a static analysis tool called APKInspector, and the other, a dynamic analysis system called DroidBox -- both of which are aimed at giving researchers a way to easily reverse-engineer Android malware and to observe and dissect malicious Android apps.

"These two tools nicely complement each other and should really be part of one's toolbox [who deals] with mobile malware," says Christian Seifert, chief communications officer for The Honeynet Project. "We believe that mobile malware will flourish, and while similar to malware on the PC, [it has] some unique characteristics that will reflect themselves in unique characteristics of the malware itself."

For one thing, mobile malware can be written to access interfaces on the victim's smartphone that are financially motivated, such as sending premium SMS messages, he says. "There are also some unique challenges in the mobile malware space. It's a very new technology that security researchers are unfamiliar with," and malware analysis is currently resource-intensive, he says.

The Android is a marked mobile platform both for its widespread popularity and its inherent open-source architecture and heritage: It's already being inundated with rogue mobile apps and a plethora of research demonstrating its security and privacy weaknesses.

The Honeynet Project's Ryan Smith, who served as a mentor for APKInspector author and graduate student Cong Zheng, says the new tools fill large gaps in Android attack analysis. The IDA Pro product recently added a static analysis component for the Android, he says, but IDA Pro typically costs somewhere around $900 per license per user.

"[APKInspector] provides similar analysis tools as IDAPro," Smith says. "But ours is the only free and open-source tool that does this for Android applications. It gives researchers the opportunity to pick it up and install it."

The tool also shows where user permissions are being used in the code of a mobile program, he says.

DroidBox is a sandbox of sorts that lets a researcher or analyst safely run and observe a malicious app. "It lets you look and see if the app is doing something [malicious] ... and how it's doing it," Smith says. "Once you have a profile of it, and you want to dig into the how and where in the code it's doing something, then you use APKInspector to review the code."

Both tools are aimed at researchers who perform malware reverse-engineering as well as security analysts, he says. And that's a first step toward better securing the Android platform, according to Smith.

The intelligence could be used for mobile security tools to identify any malicious apps and to block any malicious activity the tools pinpoint, he says.

APKInspector author Zheng says the goal of his static analysis tool -- available here -- is to offer something akin to IDA Pro for the mobile platform. "The primary focus of this project is to provide a visualization layer that’s typically missing in existing Android reverse-engineering tools, as well as to create a unified platform that combines several existing Android reverse-engineering tools into a single unified view and context," he says. "In a word, we just want to create a powerful static analysis tool on Android platform, just as the IDA Pro on the x86 platform."

DroidBox creator and graduate student Patrik Lanz has released an alpha version of his open-source dynamic analysis tool here. (A beta version is in the works.) DroidBox can monitor the app's API calls, for instance.

"My interest in taking on this project mainly depended on the fact that malicious Android apps are a growing concern and the lack of a publicly available tool, such as DroidBox. Another aspect is that Android is open-source, and thus it would be possible to make modifications to the framework," Lanz says.

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Add Your Comment" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message.

Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Executive Editor of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio

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