The dark side of native Ccode on Android

Ruggia, Antonio; Possemato, Andrea; Dambra, Savino; Merlo, Alessio; Aonzo, Simone; Balzarotti, Davide
Submitted to TechRXiv, 5 October 2022

From a little research experiment to an essential component of military arsenals, malicious software has constantly been growing and evolving for more than three decades. On the other hand, from a negligible market share, the Android operating system is nowadays the most widely used mobile operating system, becoming a desirable target for large-scale malware distribution. While scientific literature has followed this trend, one aspect has been understudied: the role of native code in malicious Android apps. Android apps are written in high-level languages, but thanks to the Java Native Interface (JNI), Android also supports calling native (C/C++) library functions. While allowing native code in Android apps has a strong positive impact from a performance perspective, it dramatically complicates its analysis because bytecode and native code need different abstractions and analysis algorithms, and they thus pose different challenges and limitations. Consequently, these difficulties are often (ab)used to hide malicious payloads. In this work, we propose a novel methodology to reverse engineering Android apps focusing on suspicious patterns related to native components, i.e., surreptitious code that requires further inspection. We implemented a static analysis tool based on such methodology, which can bridge the “Java” and the native worlds and perform an in-depth analysis of tag code blocks responsible for suspicious behavior. These tags benefit the human facing the reverse engineering task: they clearly indicate which part of the code to focus on to find malicious code. Then, we performed a longitudinal analysis of Android malware over the past ten years and compared the recent malicious samples with actual top apps on the Google Play Store. Our work depicts typical behaviors of modern malware, its evolution, and how it abuses the native layer to complicate the analysis, especially with dynamic code loading and novel anti-analysis techniques. Finally, we show a use case for our suspicious tags: we trained and tested a machine learning algorithm for a binary classification task. Even if suspicious does not imply malicious, our classifier obtained a remarkable F1-score of 0.97, showing that our methodology can be helpful to both humans and machines.

Digital Security
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