Pwned by Vpon

Vpon is one of many mobile ad SDKs
marketed towards mainland Chinese and Taiwanese developers and app
users. Recently, FireEye mobile security researchers identified a
branch of Vpon ad SDK on iOS containing code that allows a malicious
actor (be it the app developer or the SDK creator) to remotely
command the app to perform the following actions:

  • Stealthily record audio
  • Capture screenshots and
  • Monitor and upload device location
  • Read/delete/create/modify files within the app sandbox
  • Exfiltrate data to remote servers
  • Load URL schemes to
    identify and launch apps installed on the device
  • Access and
    modify the address book

In our investigation, we found that not all SDKs provided by Vpon
enable the above capabilities – only the SDKs that are integrated with
another ad platform aggregator, AdsMogo. AdsMogo
not only functions as a standalone ad serving platform, but also
provides the unification of a dynamic list of third party ad SDKs such
as Inmobi, Youmi, Millenial Meida, Tapjoy, Vungle, etc. The
implementation allows the participating ad SDKs to integrate behaviors
that are not advertised in their standalone offerings.

Malicious Impact

We found a total of 36 apps that have the risky version of
Vpon SDK integrated with AdsMogo platform. These apps are still
available in the App Store as of May 25, 2016. According to Vpon’s changelog
for iOS, the latest version at the time of posting is 4.5.1.

The delivery of the abovementioned malicious capabilities is through
Apache Cordova (formerly
known as PhoneGap) plugins. Cordova is an open source, community
contributed framework that supports hybrid app development. With
Cordova, a developer can program an app in pure JavaScript and other
web technologies while having it be executed in multiple native
environments such as iOS and Android. The plugin implementations allow
a developer to invoke OS functionality (e.g. Camera, Media, Contacts)
through JavaScript code.

However, throughout the changelog, there is no mention of the use of
Cordova plugins. Our investigation indicates that Cordova plugins have
been used starting with version 4.2, when a major build took
place. This has persisted through all subsequent releases.

Technical Machinery

Apache Cordova for Remote Command and Control

Vpon SDK leverages the popular open source cross-platform mobile app
development framework Apache
for remotely controlling the app behavior through
JavaScript. In the community’s own words:

Apache Cordova is an open-source
mobile development framework. It allows you to use standard web
technologies – HTML5, CSS3, and JavaScript for cross-platform
development. Applications execute within wrappers targeted to
each platform, and rely on standards-compliant API bindings to
access each device’s capabilities such as sensors, data, network
status, etc.

Due to the underlying bridging implementation of Cordova, there are
numerous limitations that constrain a hybrid app from being as capable
as its full-fledged native counterpart when it comes to interacting
with the native OS and device hardware. To fill in the gap and to
expand the app’s capability to access native functionalities, the
Cordova community provides a series of plugins.
For instance, the cordova-plugin-camera allows a JavaScript
call to access the camera on the device and to perform system
functions. Furthermore, on iOS, one can implement their own custom
plugin. Figure 1 is a diagram of the architecture of a typical Cordova
based mobile app.

Figure 1. A high-level view of the Cordova
application architecture
Source: Apache Cordova under Apache License

Vpon implemented its own plugin that encapsulates all the existing
open source plugins. This is not exposed to the developer in its
standalone releases of the SDK, therefore, developers could not hook
the functionality into their apps. However, AdsMogo provides a
software adapter that allows Vpon SDK provider to conceal the plugin
initialization and ad rendering. When an app developer integrates Vpon
through AdsMogo provided interface, all the plugin capabilities are
enabled within the app.

Objective-C Side of Story

Power of Cordova Plugin

The pivotal piece that bridges the communication within a hybrid app
between its web contents and the native OS environment is an
implementation of the HTML Rendering Engine, which is UIWebView
in iOS. However, the OS determines that a large set of device and
platform functionalities should not be available to web based
applications through the single interface [UIWebView
. Plugins, therefore, serve
as a workaround of the constraint.

According to the development
, a plugin is a package of injected code that allows the
Cordova webview within which the app renders to communicate with the
native platform on which it runs. Plugins consist of a single
JavaScript interface along with corresponding native code libraries
for each supported platform. In essence, this hides the various native
code implementations behind a common JavaScript interface.

Cornerstone of a Vpon Cordova Plugin

An iOS plugin is implemented as an Objective-C class that extends
class. For Vpon SDK, this Objective-C class is
, which is further extended by the plugin
implementation shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2. A list of plugin implementations in
Vpon’s Cordova Plugin

Further examination shows that all the above plugin implementations
are simply wrappers of the corresponding existing open source plugins
in the Apache repository. Therefore, they export the same interfaces
for JavaScript calls as those of the open source plugins.

The Inheritance Relationship of View Controllers

Cordova applications are ordinarily implemented as a browser-based
WebView within the native mobile platform. However, as a third
party ad library, one has little control over whether it is embedded
in a hybrid app or a pure native one. Therefore, it is imperative to
roll out a customized web view implementation within the ad library.
According to the official
, the underpinning element is the
from the Cordova library, which serves
as the point of contact for the tailored communication between
JavaScript and the native OS.

For the Vpon SDK, the embodiment of this view controller class is
. Special setup and configuration
was performed when an instance is instantiated. Figure 3 shows a
subset of methods it has, as well as a look into one of its functions
[VponCDVViewController webView:shouldStartLoadWithRequest:navigationType:].

Figure 3. Vpon Cordova plugin’s implementation
of entry point view controller CDVViewController

VponCDVViewController is never directly instantiated and added
to the host app’s view controller hierarchy, but rather is dependent
on the instantiation of many of its child implementations,
VponPhoneGapViewController. Figure 4 shows the parent and child
relationship of these two view controllers.

Figure 4. VponCDVViewController is the
parent of VponPhoneGapViewController

Furthermore, VponPhoneGapViewController is the parent of the
following view controllers, as shown in Figure 5.

  • VponVideoWebViewController
  • VpadnNativeADViewController
  • VponInAppWebViewController
  • VpadnNativeAdActionViewController
  • VponAdViewController
  • VponInterstatialViewController

Figure 5. VponPhoneGapViewController is
the parent of the list of UIViewController implementations

To better illustrate the workflow of Vpon Cordova plugin, let’s
focus on one of the UIViewController implementations. A
VponAdViewController instance is created and set into operation
in a series of method invocations started when the Vpon SDK is
activated through AdsMoGoAdapterVpon, an adapter implementation
of the Adapter interface provided by AdsMoGo platform. The sequence of
invocations is depicted in Figure 6.

Figure 6. Sequence of invocations that
illustrates the integration of Vpon and AdsMoGo

Figure 7 displays the content of [VpadnBanner sendRequestGetAd]
with the
highlighted area showing the initialization of the child view
controller implementation of


Figure 7. The implementation of [VpadnBanner
with the instantiation of VponCDVViewController

When VponAdViewController is used to open a video Ad through
[VponAdViewController openVideoAd:], it effectively creates
an instance of the VponVideoWebViewController and renders the
remotely retrieved video content.

Malicious Capabilities

The capabilities that are beyond the realm of ad serving in Vpon are
manifested by the plugin implementations. Each capability is supported
by an implementation of an open source Cordova plugin. Figure 8 shows
the full set of commands supported by vpadn-sdk-i-v4.2.16: the
latest as of March 28, 2016, which is the required plugin mapping for
a custom Cordova plugin.

Figure 8. Vpon Cordova Plugin Mapping

For those who are interested in knowing more about Cordova Plugin
development, please refer to Apache’s
plugin development guide

Figure 9 gives a look into the implementation of one of the plugins,
VponCDVCapture. It is a plugin that supports stealth recording
in response to the corresponding command from JavaScript. The
implementation within Vpon SDK is merely a wrapping of the open source
plugin cordova-plugin-media-capture
with a different class name that is consistent with Vpon’s naming convention.

Figure 9. Vpon’s implementation of the media
capture plugin

According to Cordova’s documentation on the media capture plugin
shown in Figure 10, the utilization should always be accompanied by a
UI control that allows the user to accept or deny. While the OS
prompts the user for granting the access to the microphone the first
time it is going to be used by the app, it is not sufficient in
raising the user’s suspicion if the host app provides functionalities
that require legitimate access to the microphone.

Figure 10. Apache documentation on the
media-capture plugin

In addition to accessing microphone, Vpon Cordova plugin also
provides interface to JavaScript for using the device camera and the
address book. Figure 11 and Figure 12 provide a glimpse into the
relevant code.

Figure 11. Vpon’s cordova plugin supports
JavaScript access to the device camera

Figure 12.  Vpon’s cordova plugin supports
JavaScript access to the device address book

JavaScript Side of Story

JavaScript code is the linchpin for the framework that enables
plugins to function as intended. As Apache
has put it:

The entry point for any plugin is
JavaScript. The reason developers use Cordova is so they can
use and write JavaScript, not Objective-C, not Java, not C#.
The JavaScript interface for your plugin is the front-facing
and arguably most important part of your Cordova plugin.

You can structure your plugin’s JavaScript however you

There are two ways to serve JavaScript content to a Cordova enabled
app. First, the app is compiled and packaged with local JavaScript
files and the HTML pages that consume them. Second, the app retrieves
remote JavaScript at runtime through web technologies. They are not
mutually exclusive; rather, they are supplemental to each other for
robust and flexible cross-platform apps.

In the case of Vpon SDK, there is no local JavaScript content
involved in the app’s lifecycle. Instead, it is delivered to the
rendering view controllers during an ad request to the Vpon ad server.
Figure 13 shows the hardcoded URL of loaded JavaScript for each and
every ad request.

Figure 13. The hardcoded URL of loaded
JavaScript for each and every ad request

The current content of the above JavaScript file on the server is
shown in Listing 1. This piece further directs the rendering view to
load JavaScript for an iOS device, which is a customized version of
the Apache cordova.js file, the base of the Cordova JavaScript
API. Listing 2 shows an excerpt of the current content of this
JavaScript file, with highlights on the invocation of Vpon Cordova
plugin VponSdk.

Listing 1. Content of file 

Listing 2. Content excerpt of JavaScript file
vpadn-sdk-i-core-v1.js served by the Vpon server

Through our investigation and traffic monitoring within a limited
time period, we did not observe active network communications that
deliver malicious JavaScript from the remote server. However, this
does not justify that it cannot be taken advantage of to behave
maliciously. It is rather easy to replace the plugin name, the
invocation method, and the relevant parameters specified to execute
the functionalities of other plugins. For instance, to activate the
microphone to record surroundings, one only needs to add the following
JavaScript code (Listing 3) in the remote JS file.

Listing 3. PoC exploit

This is the functional equivalent to the following execution in cycript within a running app
embedded with the malicious Vpon SDK, as shown in Figure 14.

Figure 14. Activate device microphone for voice
recording through Vpon’s undisclosed Cordova plugin in Cycript

The subsequent execution of the above cmd resulted in a stealth
recording saved to the Documents directory within the app sandbox.

Two Routes to Profit

While we did not capture real network traffic during our
investigation that proves a perceived wrongdoing, we see no
justification for an ad platform provider, such as Vpon, to have the
code ability to use the microphone for voice recording, use the camera
for taking pictures and recording videos, access the address book,
manipulate the app sandbox, and perform other behaviors.

The current setup offers opportunity to two types of potential
malicious actors who can profit from the developers and the app users.

  • Profiter: Vpon SDK provider. To this point, it should
    not be surprising that it’s up to the Vpon SDK provider’s
    benevolence that apps embedded with this malicious SDK are not
    behaving improperly for their users. However, in the case where such
    benevolence runs out, the users will suffer undesirable loss of
    privacy and security.
  • Profiter: A third party network
    . As we have illustrated, a portion of the contents
    provided to the user by the ad SDK provider are through the network
    communication on top of the HTTP protocol. The commands are
    delivered through the remote web pages, in the form of HTML and
    JavaScript. Therefore, a third party network attacker can take
    advantage of a man in the middle (MitM) setup to activate the
    seemingly dormant malicious behavior.

Food for Thought

In this blog post, we showed that a third party ad library provider,
Vpon, is stowing aggressive and risky code ability into the apps that
adopt it as an ad-serving platform. This is not the first time FireEye
mobile security researchers have seen such attempts. In November 2015,
we reported iBackdoor,
a similar threat with a backdoored ad SDK leveraging remote JavaScript
to manipulate the device and exfiltrate sensitive information without
permission. Third party libraries – ad libraries in particular – are
often unvetted by the community. It is common and expected that app
developers will integrate third party libraries into their apps, so
developers should exert caution.

Following our responsible disclosure guidelines, we contacted Apple
and Vpon respectively on May 10, 2016. Apple acknowledged the
findings, but offered no further feedback. Vpon did not respond when
we reached out.

*** This is a Security Bloggers Network syndicated blog from Threat Research Blog authored by Threat Research Blog. Read the original post at: