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Boffins tag Android app privacy fails

Your pocket is leaking data

Evil Android

A group of researchers from universities in Luxembourg, Germany and the US say they can dramatically improve the detection of privacy leaks between Android processes.

The researchers, led by Li Li of the University of Luxembourg, are looking for ways to identify apps that send private data outside the app's own domain without the user's consent (often by accident), via intra-component leaks, inter-component communications (ICC), and inter-application communication (IAC).

They claim that the tool they describe in this paper at Arxiv detected 88.3 per cent of inter-component privacy leaks, and when used in combination with ApkCombiner, also detected inter-application privacy leaks.

As noted in the paper, privacy leaks have been the subject of lots of academic research into Android, with Yajin Zhou a noted discoverer of different kinds of leaks, including this one reported last year.

The Android components that can contribute to leaks include calls like startActivity, startActivityForResult, query, startService and so on.

The Li Li paper outlines a technique called Static Taint Analysis, using a tool called IccTA that analyses inter-component and inter-app links. IccTA takes existing tools Epicc (from Pennsylvania State University, whose Damien Octeau and Patrick McDaniel contributed to the study) and FlowDroid (the German contribution, with Steven Arzt, Siegfried Rasthofer and Eric Bodden from EC SPRIDE), and extends them into the Android environment.

Their aim is to look both at how an app behaves both on its own, and how it interacts with other apps: “IccTA enables a data-flow analysis between two components and adequately models the lifecycle and callback methods to detect ICC based privacy leaks,” the researchers write.

“When running IccTA on three thousands applications randomly selected from the Google Play store as well other third-party markets, it detects 130 inter-component based privacy leaks in 12 applications.”

The good news, The Register notes, must be that only a dozen apps out of the 3,000 tested actually revealed privacy leaks.

Li Li's colleagues at the University of Luxembourg, Alexandre Bartel, Jacques Klein, Yves Le Traon, also took part in the project. ®

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