Towards Detecting Logic Bombs in Android Applications

  • Yanick Fratantonio, Antonio Bianchi, William Robertson, Christopher Kruegel, Engin Kirda, Giovanni Vigna
  • Proceedings of the IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy (Oakland)
  • PDF

Android is the most popular mobile platform today, and it is also the mobile operating system that is most heavily targeted by malware. Existing static analyses are effective in detecting the presence of most malicious code and unwanted information flows. However, certain types of malice are very difficult to capture explicitly by modeling permission sets, suspicious API calls, or unwanted information flows. One important type of such malice is malicious application logic, where a program (often subtly) modifies its outputs or performs actions that violate the expectations of the user. Malicious application logic is very hard to identify without a specification of the “normal,” expected functionality of the application. We refer to malicious application logic that is executed, or triggered, only under certain (often narrow) circumstances as a logic bomb. This is a powerful mechanism that is commonly employed by targeted malware, often used as part of APTs and state-sponsored attacks: in fact, in this scenario, the malware is designed to target specific victims and to only activate under certain circumstances.

In this paper, we make a first step towards detecting logic bombs. In particular, we propose trigger analysis, a new static analysis technique that seeks to automatically identify triggers in Android applications. Our analysis combines symbolic execution, path predicate reconstruction and minimization, and interprocedural control-dependency analysis to enable the precise detection and characterization of triggers, and it overcomes several limitations of existing approaches. We implemented a prototype of our analysis, called TriggerScope, and we evaluated it over a large corpus of 9,582 benign apps from the Google Play Store and a set of trigger-based malware, including the recently-discovered HackingTeam’s RCSAndroid advanced malware. Our system is capable of automatically identify several interesting time-, location-, and SMS-related triggers, is affected by a low false positive rate (0.38%), and it achieves 100% detection rate on the malware set. We also show how existing approaches, specifically when tasked to detect logic bombs, are affected by either a very high false positive rate or false negative rate. Finally, we discuss the logic bombs identified by our analysis, including two previously-unknown backdoors in benign apps.