Hacktive Security Blog

Android IPC: Part 2 - Binder and Service Manager Perspective


As mentioned in the previous article, Android uses the Binder for IPC communications. Good to know, the Binder was not created by Google. Its initial appearance was in BeOS, an old OS for mobile devices. After some acquisitions, original developers joined Android and took the Binder with them. The OpenBinder porting to Android was more implementation specific and it is a key component of the current Android OS. The official OpenBinder website is not up anymore, but there are some mirrors like this one that contain precious documentation.

High level overview

Binder is a Kernel module written in C++, mainly responsible to let processes securely, transparently and easily communicate with each other using a client-server architecture. The simplicity on how processes can interact together is awful, a client application just needs to call a method provided by the service (that is the server in the client-side architecture) and everything in between is handled by the Binder. With ‘everything in between’ I mean Location, Delivery and credentials.

When a client needs to talk to a service, he needs to locate the target service (that is, the target process). The Binder is responsible to locate the service, handle the communication, deliver messages and check for caller privileges (Credentials).
The location stage is handled by the servicemanager that acts as the endpoint mapper, it maintains a service directory that maps an interface name to a Binder handle. So, when the Binder receives a request for a specific service, it interrogates the servicemanager. The servicemanager will return a handle to it after some permission checks (for example the AID_ISOLATED mentioned in the first part) scrolling on its service list (aka service directory). If the client has permissions to interact with the requested service, the Binder will proxy the communication and deliver the message to the server, that will elaborate the request and return the result to the Binder, that will turn it to the client as a 'message'. These messages are technically called 'Parcel', containers that are written from both client and server in order to communicate serializing and deserializing necessary data (that can be parameters for clients and return values for services).


This is how IPC communications, at a higher level, are handled by Android.

Binder Introduction

Let's start with the main component of an IPC transaction, the Binder. As we said, the Binder is a small kernel module that lives in the kernel and acts as a messenger for clients and services. Every operation in Android goes through the Binder, and that's why two researchers, Nitay Artenstein and Idam Revivo, took an interesting talk at BH2014, ‘Man in the Binder: He Who Controls IPC, Controls the Droid’ (Youtube Video).
This research demonstrates an advanced post exploitation technique (a rootkit implant) where it is possible to sniff every data that uses IPC, in order to manipulate network traffic and sensitive information by hooking binder calls.

The character device at /dev/binder is read/write by everyone, any process can perform read and write operations on it using ioctl(). The ioctl() responsible to handle the IPC connection from clients (applications) is located in the 'libbinder.so' shared library, that is loaded in each application process. This library is responsible for the client initialization phase, setting up messages (aka Parcel) and talking with the binder module. We will deepen this specific library while talking, in next chapters, about the client and service implementations.

Binder interactions (userland --> kerneland)

First to introduce more concepts, let's first take an introduction on how a basic interaction works from userland to kerneland, from a client (or a service) to the binder kernel module.
As a linux based OS, ioctl system call is used to talk with the kernel module using the special character file '/dev/binder'. The driver accepts different request codes:

BINDER_SET_MAX_THREAD: Set limit thread numbers of a thread pool (deepened in the client/service implementation chapter)
BINDER_SET_CONTEXT_MGR: Set the context manager (the service manager)
BINDER_THREAD_EXIT: A thread exit the thread pool
BINDER_VERSION: Get the Binder version
BINDER_WRITE_READ: The most used code used for client and service requests

We will deepen all commands during these articles, but let's start with the BINDER_WRITE_READ request code.
The binder module source code is at drivers/android/binder.c, here the binder_ioctl() is responsible to dispatch requests received from userland based on above request codes. In the case of a BINDER_WRITE_READ code, the binder_ioctl_write_read() is triggered and parameters are handled from userland to kerneland (and vice versa) using the binder_write_read structure:

struct binder_write_read {
    signed long write_size; // size of buffer by the client
    signed long write_consumed; // size of buffer by the binder
    unsigned long write_buffer;
    signed long read_size; // size of buffer by the client
    signed long read_consumed; // size of buffer by the binder
    unsigned long read_buffer;

In this structure, we have 2 main divisions: write and read items.
Write items (write_size, write_consumed, write_buffer) are used to send commands to the binder that it has to execute, meanwhile read items contain transactions from the binder to the clients that they have to execute (them whose ‘ioctl’ the binder).

For example, if a client needs to talk to a service, it will send a binder_write_read command with write items filled. When binder replies back, the client will have read items filled back. The same, a service waiting for client interactions, will receive transactions from the Binder with read items.
While talking about 'clients', I don’t mean only application clients that need to perform a request in an IPC context. A client, in this context, is a process that ioctl() the binder. For example, a service waiting for transactions from an application is a client of the binder, because it calls ioctl() in order to receive actions.


Note that in the case of a client, the ioctl() is performed when it is needed from the application (for example to perform an Inter Process Communication). Meanwhile, the service process has threads waiting in a loop for transactions from the binder.

Inside these read and write attributes we have more commands, that starts with BC_* and BR_*. The difference is in the way that the transaction is going, to or from the Binder. BR are commands received FROM the binder, while BC are commands SENT to the binder. To remind me about this difference, I think to them as they are 'BinderCall' (BC) and 'BinderReceive' (BR), but I think is not an official naming convention, so in case just use it as a reminder.

An example can be the most common TRANSACTION, we can have BC_TRANSACTION and BR_TRANSACTION.
BC_TRANSACTION is used from clients to binder, while BR_TRANSACTION is used from the binder to its clients.

The Servicemanager

As was illustrated in the High Level overview, the servicemanager is responsible for the location stage. When a client needs to interact with a service (using the Binder), the Binder will ask the servicemanager for a handle to that service.

The servicemanager source code is located at frameworks/native/cmds/servicemanager/, where service_manager.c is responsible to initialize itself and handle service related requests. Meanwhile, in binder.c (inside that path, not the kernel module) we find the code responsible to handle the communication with the binder, parsing received requests from it and sending the appropriate replies.
Servicemanager is started at boot time as defined in /init.rc file. This init file is part of the boot image and is responsible to load system partitions and binaries in the boot process:

# start essential services
start logd
start servicemanager
start hwservicemanager
start vndservicemanager

# When servicemanager goes down, restart all specified services
service servicemanager /system/bin/servicemanager
class core
user system
group system
onrestart restart healthd
onrestart restart zygote
onrestart restart media
onrestart restart surfaceflinger
onrestart restart drm
onrestart restart perfhub

When the service manager is started, the main function obtains an handle to the binder ('/dev/binder') and successively call binder_become_context_manager(), that will ioctl the binder with the BINDER_SET_CONTEXT_MGR command, in order to declare itself as the context manager.
The context manager is crucial for the binder as it serves as the service locator. When the binder needs to locate a service, it asks for a handle to its context manager.
Once the registration with the binder it's done, it calls binder_loop (from binder.c) with a callback function parameter. This callback (svcmgr_handler) will be responsible to handle service related requests.

The binder_loop assignment, as the name says, is to start an infinite loop that will receive requests from the binder. Before this loop, it will call the binder with BC_ENTER_LOOPER, to inform the binder that a specific thread is joining the thread pool. The thread pool is a group of threads that are waiting for incoming messages from the Binder, usually services have multiple threads in order to handle multiple requests. By the way, the service manager is a single-threaded service, so this is the first and unique thread.

After this notification, the servicemanager starts its infinite loop that continuously asks the binder (using ioctl) waiting for actions. This is managed using the BINDER_WRITE_READ command (to the binder) with a binder_write_read structure that will be filled by the binder in its read_* items, this is the structure:

struct binder_write_read {
    signed long write_size; // size of buffer by the client
    signed long write_consumed; // size of buffer by the binder
    unsigned long write_buffer;
    signed long read_size; // size of buffer by the client
    signed long read_consumed; // size of buffer by the binder
    unsigned long read_buffer;

When the binder needs the service manager to perform an action (e.g. getting a handle to a service) it will return to the binder_loop() a binder_write_read structure with read_buffer filled with the requested transaction (and in read_consumed its actual size). These two values are passed over the binder_parse() function that will start to ‘deserialize’ the transaction request:

/ .. /
uintptr_t end = ptr + (uintptr_t) size; // end calculated using the bwr.read_consumed
while (ptr < end) {
    uint32_t cmd = *(uint32_t *) ptr; // the command is read from the buffer
    ptr += sizeof(uint32_t);
    // switch case on the received command
    switch(cmd) {
        // BR_NOOP is a command
        case BR_NOOP:

The first 32 bits of the bwr.read_buffer contains the command to be executed (CMD).

You can find a lot more BR_* commands, but these are the only ones handled by the servicemanager. For example, a normal service can receive a SPWAN_LOOPER command from the binder, that requests the service to spawn a new thread in order to handle more requests. We said that the servicemanager is single thread, so there is no sense to receive this type of requests, so they are not handled. We will better deepen on these commands that are used by other services in IPCThreadState.cpp in next articles.

After having extracted the command from the binder_read_write structure, this one is inserted in a switch case where above commands are managed. The most interesting one is the BR_TRANSACTION, because it means that the binder needs to retrieve a service handle or register a new service.


Following the source code, we can encounter and deppen some essentials structures, such as the binder_transaction data that is casted from bwr.read_buffer (now referenced in the local function as ptr) + sizeof(uint32_t), that’s because the first 32 bits are dedicated to the command constant.

struct binder_transaction_data *txn = (struct binder_transaction_data *)



This is the binder_transaction_data structure:

struct binder_transaction_data {
/* The first two are only used for bcTRANSACTION and brTRANSACTION,
* identifying the target and contents of the transaction.
    union {
        __u32 handle; /* target descriptor of command transaction */
        binder_uintptr_t ptr; /* target descriptor of return transaction */
        // in BR_TRANSACTION this must be BINDER_SERVICE_MANAGER or the service_manager return -1
    } target;
    binder_uintptr_t cookie; /* target object cookie */
    __u32 code; /* transaction command. */ // e.g. SVC_MGR_GET_SERVICE
    /* General information about the transaction. */
    __u32 flags;
    pid_t sender_pid;
    uid_t sender_euid;
    binder_size_t data_size; /* number of bytes of data */
    binder_size_t offsets_size; /* number of bytes of offsets */
    /* If this transaction is inline, the data immediately
    * follows here; otherwise, it ends with a pointer to
    * the data buffer.
    union {
        struct {
            /* transaction data */
            binder_uintptr_t buffer;
            /* offsets from buffer to flat_binder_object structs */
            binder_uintptr_t offsets;
        } ptr;
        __u8 buf[8];
    } data;

This structure contains necessary information about the incoming request, such as the sender PID and UID to check permissions for a service, the target descriptor and the transaction command for the service manager (for example PING_TRANSACTION or SVC_MGR_CHECK_SERVICE).

This binder_transaction_data structure initializes a new binder_io (binder I/O) structure using bio_init_from_txn(), that will copy data and offsets from binder_transaction_data to this new one.

struct binder_io
    char *data; /* pointer to read/write from */
    binder_size_t *offs; /* array of offsets */
    size_t data_avail; /* bytes available in data buffer */
    size_t offs_avail; /* entries available in offsets array */

    char *data0; /* start of data buffer */
    binder_size_t *offs0; /* start of offsets buffer */
    uint32_t flags;
    uint32_t unused;


bio_* functions refers to operations on the binder_io structure, here is an example on how the that structure is filled from binder_transaction_data:

void bio_init_from_txn(struct binder_io *bio, struct binder_transaction_data *txn)
    bio->data = bio->data0 = (char *)(intptr_t)txn->data.ptr.buffer;
    bio->offs = bio->offs0 = (binder_size_t *)(intptr_t)txn->data.ptr.offsets;
    bio->data_avail = txn->data_size;
    bio->offs_avail = txn->offsets_size / sizeof(size_t);
    bio->flags = BIO_F_SHARED;

As we can see, buffer and offsets (including their size) of binder_transaction_data are filled in their relative binder_io structure, and both structures are passed over the service manager callback function (the svcmgr_handler() function defined in service_manager.c while calling binder_loop()):

res = func(bs, txn, &msg, reply);
// func -> binder_handle defined in service_manager.c - binder_loop(bs, svcmgr_handler);
// bs -> binder_state
// txn -> binder_transaction_data
// msg -> binder_io initialized from binder_transaction_data
// reply -> an empty binder_io that will contain the reply from the service manager

Now, the BR_TRANSACTION is inside the svcmgr_handler().
The binder_transaction_data.ptr must contain BINDER_SERVICE_MANAGER in order to continue (otherwise return -1) and binder_transaction_data.code contains the service manager command. These service commands (dispatched in a switch condition) can be:

PING_TRANSACTION: It is a ping to the servicemanager, so return 0.
SVC_MGR_GET_SERVICE - SVC_MGR_CHECK_SERVICE: Get a handle to a service. They follow the same switch path
SVC_MGR_ADD_SERVICE - Add a new service
SVC_MGR_LIST_SERVICES - List all available services

Let's start to dig into SVC_MGR_GET_SERVICE.


This service command occurs when the binder needs a service handle based on a service name (requested from a client).
The service name is taken from the binder_io structure (referred as `msg` in the source) using bio_get_string16().
We have different functions as bio_get_* (bio_get_uint32, bio_get_string16, _bio_get_obj, bio_get_ref). They are all primitives of bio_get() that retrieves the requested data type from (binder_io)bio->data. The same for bio_put_* functions in order to insert data in a binder_io structure while replying to a command.
do_find_service() is called with the service name and the caller UID and PID from the binder_transaction_data structure and immediately call find_svc(), that will iterate its service singularly linked list and return an `svcinfo` structure if match the requested service name:

    struct svcinfo *next; // pointer to the next service
    uint32_t handle;
    struct binder_death death;
    int allow_isolated;
    uint32_t dumpsys_priority;
    size_t len;
    uint16_t name[0];
} svcinfo;


The svcinfo structure mainly contains information about the target service.
If the service matches the svcinfo.name item, the structure is returned to the do_find_service() function, that is responsible to perform extra checks.
The first check is about process isolation. As we were talking in the first part of this series, some services are not allowed to be called from isolated apps (such as. web browsers):

if (!si->allow_isolated) {
    uid_t appid = uid % AID_USER;
    if (appid >= AID_ISOLATED_START && appid <= AID_ISOLATED_END) {
        return 0;

In this piece of code, the UID retrieved from binder_transaction_data struct (coming from the binder) is verified against AID_ISOLATED_START and AID_ISOLATED_END. These UIDs (a range from 99000 to 99999) are associated with isolated processes and they can interact only with services with svcinfo.allow_isolated set to True.
If this check is passed, a SELINUX permission checks if the sender is allowed to retrieve the service, and the handler is returned to the main switch case in the service handler. The returned handle will be put inside the binder_io reply using `bio_put_ref()` and return 0, meaning everything is fine. Later on we will see how the message is sent back to the binder.


We can also list available services with the SVC_MGR_LIST_SERVICES command, that will iterate through the service list (svclist) and put the result in the binder_io reply message using bio_put_string16(). There is also an interesting condition on dumpsys_priority. The priority, that can be defined while registering a new service, can be of three levels: CRITICAL, HIGH and NORMAL. While listing all services, we can choose to dump only services with a specific priority (specified in the svclist structure).
For example, using the dumpsys utility in Android, we can specify the desired level:

adb > `dumpsys -l --priority CRITICAL`
Currently running services:

`dumpsys -l --priority HIGH`
Currently running services:

adb > `dumpsys -l --priority NORMAL`
Currently running services:


If the requested command from the binder is SVC_MGR_ADD_SERVICE, the binder is proxying a client request to register a new service. Details about the new service are taken from the binder_io message (binder_io->data). Service attributes are the service name, the priority level (dumpsys_priority), the handle and if it is permitted to interact with the service from isolated apps (allow_isolation). The function do_add_service() is called with this information and the caller UID and PID from the binder_transaction_data message.
This function is responsible to check for caller permissions (the process that requests the registration), starting by checking its UID to avoid the creation of a new service from standard applications. This is accomplished by checking if the AID_APP is over 10000.
In Android, installed applications start from UID 10000, so the condition is aimed to prevent an user application from installing a new service (or override an existing one). That also means that the privileged system user (with UID 1000) can register a new service.
If this condition is satisfied, a SELINUX check controls that the caller process has 'add' permissions. If the caller process has rights to register a new service, find_svc() checks if the service name has been already registered. If it already exists, the service handle is overridden with the new one, and svcinfo_death() called.
Before going in depth with this function behaviour, let's introduce the scenario where the service does not exist:

struct svcinfo *si;
si->handle = handle;
si->len = len;
memcpy(si->name, s, (len + 1) * sizeof(uint16_t));
si->name[len] = '\0';
si->death.func = (void*) svcinfo_death;
si->death.ptr = si;
si->allow_isolated = allow_isolated;
si->dumpsys_priority = dumpsys_priority;
si->next = svclist;
svclist = si;


The code is pretty self-explanatory, it is populating the new structure with input values and updates its service list with `si->next = svclist` and `svclist = si ` (linked list behavior). And here, we are back with the death that we were talking some lines above.

The binder_death structure, part of the svclist, contains two items, func and ptr. The ptr is a pointer to its service structure (itself), and the func is a function pointer pointing to svcinfo_death().
This death function sets the service handle to 0 and informs the binder that the service is dead using a BC_RELEASE with the service handle as parameter, so the binder can release this reference. The binder can use this information to also inform associated clients that the service is down using BR_BINDER_DOWN, if clients requested for it (by sending a BC_REQUEST_DEATH_NOTIFICATION for the service to the binder).
On the other side, when a service is registered or overridden, a BC_ACQUIRE with the service handle as parameter is sent to the binder, also with the BC_REQUEST_DEATH_NOTIFICATION in case the service goes down (for example if its crashes).

Comeback to the service handler

When one of these described commands are executed, the Binder usually expects a reply back.
While handling commands, SVC_MGR_ADD_SERVICE puts 0 in reply message if success (bio_put_uint32(reply, 0);) or simply return -1 if something fail, and the binder will receive an empty reply (that was previously initialized using bio_init()).
SVC_MGR_GET_SERVICE and SVC_MGR_LIST_SERVICES act in the same way if something goes wrong (-1 and empty reply packet), or they will return 0 to the function after have filled the reply packet with necessary values (handle in case of get service, and the list of services for the service list command).

When the service handler returns, the execution flow comes back inside the `binder_parse()` function (in the BR_TRANSACTION switch case) with the reply packet and the result value of the servicemanager handler. Based on the binder_transaction_data.flags, if TF_ONE_WAY is set, means that is an asynchronous call, the binder does not expect a reply, so the servicemanager will inform the binder to free the binder_transaction_data.ptr.buffer with a BC_FREE_BUFFER command (internally using the binder_free_buffer() function). If it's not an asynchronous call, it will send the reply back to the binder using binder_send_reply() that will send a BC_REPLY command.

Also, as you could notice, all these functions (binder_send_reply, binder_free_buffer, ..) are meant to be easily called inside the source code, and will perform all setup operations to interact with the binder with the final ioctl(). Let's take a simple example of the binder_free_buffer mentioned before.

void binder_free_buffer(struct binder_state *bs,
                                   binder_uintptr_t buffer_to_free)
    struct {
        uint32_t cmd_free;
        binder_uintptr_t buffer;
    } __attribute__((packed)) data;

    data.cmd_free = BC_FREE_BUFFER;
    data.buffer = buffer_to_free;
    binder_write(bs, &data, sizeof(data));

This function, previously used by the service manager handler to inform the binder to free a buffer, will setup, using a data structure, a cmd_free with BC_FREE_BUFFER on it and the buffer to free, then call binder_write(). binder_write is the final function that will put received input inside a binder_write_read.write_buffer structure before ioctl the binder with the BINDER_WRITE_READ command:

int binder_write(struct binder_state *bs, void *data, size_t len)
    struct binder_write_read bwr;
    int res;

    bwr.write_size = len;
    bwr.write_consumed = 0;
    bwr.write_buffer = (uintptr_t) data;
    bwr.read_size = 0;
    bwr.read_consumed = 0;
    bwr.read_buffer = 0;
    res = ioctl(bs->fd, BINDER_WRITE_READ, &bwr);
    if (res < 0) {
        fprintf(stderr,"binder_write: ioctl failed (%s)\n",
    return res;

We can note the differences on the usage of the binder_write_read structure now and before.
When we were expecting an action from the binder (in the binder_loop) the received action was inside the read_buffer (that contains the BR_* command). Now, the binder needs to perform actions based on our input, so we are using the write_buffer (with a a BC_* command).

Said that, we can come back inside the binder_send_reply(), that is responsible to send the reply of performed actions to the Binder. This is the source code:

void binder_send_reply(struct binder_state *bs,
                                   struct binder_io *reply,
                                   binder_uintptr_t buffer_to_free,
                                   int status)
    struct {
        uint32_t cmd_free;
        binder_uintptr_t buffer;
        uint32_t cmd_reply;
        struct binder_transaction_data txn;
    } __attribute__((packed)) data;

    data.cmd_free = BC_FREE_BUFFER;
    data.buffer = buffer_to_free;
    data.cmd_reply = BC_REPLY;
    data.txn.target.ptr = 0;
    data.txn.cookie = 0;
    data.txn.code = 0;
    if (status) {
        // the svcmgr_handler return -1
        data.txn.flags = ;
        data.txn.data_size = sizeof(int);
        data.txn.offsets_size = 0;
        data.txn.data.ptr.buffer = (uintptr_t)&status;
        data.txn.data.ptr.offsets = 0;
    } else {
        // the svcmgr_handler return 0
        data.txn.flags = 0;
        data.txn.data_size = reply->data - reply->data0;
        data.txn.offsets_size = ((char*) reply->offs) - ((char*) reply->offs0);
        data.txn.data.ptr.buffer = (uintptr_t)reply->data0;
        data.txn.data.ptr.offsets = (uintptr_t)reply->offs0;
    binder_write(bs, &data, sizeof(data));

Note the declared data structure, it contains an integer cmd_free (that will be BC_FREE_BUFFER), the buffer, the cmd_reply (that will be BC_REPLY) and a binder_transaction_data structure.
The buffer to free is binder_transaction_data.data.ptr.buffer (previously casted in binder_io. it contains 'parameters', for example a service name for the servicemanager) and then the structure is filled based on the status value.
The status value is the return value from the servicemanager handler (svcmgr_handler) that can be 0 if everything was fine (and the reply was filled) or -1 if something went wrong.
If the result is -1, this result is copied inside the data.txn.data.ptr.buffer (so inside the binder_transaction_data of the data structure).
If the result of the service manager handler was fine (0), the binder_transaction_data is filled with reply's data/offset buffers and passed over the binder_write() function, that, as explained before, will take the data structure and put it in binder_write_read.write_buffer before calling ioctl() with the BINDER_WRITE_READ command.

Little resume

The servicemanager is started by the init process (as defined in /init.rc) and first of all it becomes the context manager for the binder. Then he notices the binder that will enter an infinite loop (BC_ENTER_LOOPER) and starts to read and parse operations delivered from the binder. When such events are related to service lookup or service registration (SVC_MGR_GET_SERVICE and SVC_MGR_ADD_SERVICE) the binder request the servicemanager for a BR_TRANSACTION with one of these commands inside its binder_transaction_data structure. The servicemanager checks for necessary rights on the caller process (information sent from the binder) and, in the case of a service lookup, returns an handle to the binder. When it's done, the reply is sent to the binder using ioctl with BINDER_WRITE_READ with the reply inside the write_buffer and the BC_REPLY command.


In this post, we concentrated on transactions between the Binder and the servicemanager. This is a crucial component for IPC. In the following blog post, we will deepen the client and service perspective for IPC transactions.

(Alessandro Groppo)

Android IPC: Part 1 - Introduction


In the last few months I was studying Android Internals in order to perform some security research in the future. I first tried to focus myself in its architecture and fundamentals components, starting from the bootloader stage to the Framework, in order to have an initial high level picture. Then, I focused on the Binder component for two reason

  • It is one of the main Android components, vital for its functionalities, as it is the IPC core.
  • In that period Google P0 discovered a 0day in the wild used in a chain to compromise the Android System. The Binder was impacted allowing LPE as root also from an isolated process (that means it is for sure a good attack vector)

During this studying process, I took a lot of messy notes, so after 1/2 months of not working anymore on Android, I took them back, put them in order, studied again (adding more messy notes) and decided to write this little series of articles. So, especially the second and the third sections contain theory concepts, high level functionalities and a lot of source code references. Parts of these articles can be considered as a ‘Code Walkthrough’, so having the actual Android Source Code (the online Android repository is enough) is highly suggested to understand the flow.
I didn’t want to repost other people's work, so this ‘code walkthrough’ is something different that honestly could help me when I was starting on it, so I hope it can help others too. It could not be perfect, so feel free to appoints something at <alessandro [at] hacktivesecurity.com> and I will of course consider them.
By the way, all references are at the bottom of each article.

In this first section, I will introduce some basic Android concepts that will be useful for next chapters. The second will deepen Binder interactions and the servicemanager. And last, but not least, the client and service IPC implementation and usage.

IPC Introduction

Inter-Process Communication is a necessary and indispensable feature for every Operating System in order to let processes communicate with each other. That means, if Process A needs to communicate with Process B (synchronize, share data, .. ), the OS must provide capabilities to do that.
We have multiple and different solutions that we can apply depending on the underlying OS, they can be through Pipes, Sockets, Shared Files, Shared Memory and more. These implementations are out of scope of this article’s series, so these are well-written references x

Linux: https://www.geeksforgeeks.org/inter-process-communication-ipc/
OSX: https://developer.apple.com/documentation/uikit/inter-process_communication
Windows: https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/windows/win32/ipc/interprocess-communications

In order to go over the IPC implementation in Android, let’s make a short introduction to Android functionalities and some security aspects that will be useful during the reading.

Android and Linux

Starting from the classic. Android is a Linux kernel based distribution aimed for mobile devices. I cannot explain better than how was explained in ‘Android Internals’ by ‘Jonathan Levin’:

“Android's novelty arises from what it aims to provide - not just another Linux distribution - but a full software stack. The term "stack" implies several layers. Android provides not just the basic kernel and shell binaries, but also a self-contained GUI environment, and a rich set of frameworks. Coupled with a simple to use development language - Java - Android gives developers a true Rapid Application Development (RAD) environment, as they can draw on prewritten, well-tested code in the frameworks to access advanced functionality - such as Cameras, motion sensors, GUI Widgets and more - in a few lines of code”

One of the biggest differences with Linux is Bionic has its core runtime C library, instead of the standard GNU libC (Glibc). Bionic is lighter and more focused on Android’s needs. There are a lot of changes between them. Today we are focused on IPC, so the difference in our interest is the omission of the System-V IPC (message queues, shared memory and semaphores), that are omitted because Android chooses its own IPC mechanism, the Binder. The Binder is a kernel component, the core component of IPC, that enables different processes to communicate with each other using a client-server architecture. It’s the core theme of this series, so we will deppen in later chapters.

Dalvik and ART

Just to be aligned, let’s spend some words about the Dalvik Virtual Machine and ART, which are the core of Android.
If you know how Java works, you also know that in order to execute the code you need the JVM (Java Virtual Machine) that will execute the compiled bytecode, translating it to machine code.
Well, Dalvik follows the same concept, but it’s not the same!
The Dalvik VM runs a different type of bytecode, called DEX (Dalvik Executable) that is more optimized for efficiency in order to run faster on low performance hardware as it is for mobile devices. It is a Just In Time (JIT) compiler, that means that the code is compiled dynamically when it needs to be executed.
Android RunTime (ART) is used for the same purpose: translate bytecode to machine code and execute it.
By the way, it uses a different approach instead of JIT compiling , it uses Ahead Of Time (AOT) that translates the whole DEX into machine code (dex2oat) at installation time when the APK is installed or when the device is idle. That means that is much more faster at execution time, but also requires more physical space.

Dalvik is the predecessor of ART. ART has been introduced in Android 4.4 (KitKat) and started to use hybrid combination of AOT and JIT from Android 7.0 (Nougat), starting to follows a different compilation approach, synthesizing:

  1. The first few times the application runs, the app is executed through JIT compilation.
  2. When the device is idle or charging, a daemon performs compilation using AOT on frequently used code, based on a profile compilation generated from the first run.

You can find these profiles for each installed application inside /data/dalvik-cache/profiles/:


Android Framework and abstraction

Developers can access complex functionalities with few lines of code using pre-written code that resides in the Framework, delivered in packages that start with com.android.* . These packages can be for different scopes, such as location and application support (android.location and android.app) Network (android.net) and in our interest, IPC support and core OS services from android.os. (https://developer.android.com/reference/packages.html for more).
This is a high advantage from the Security Perspective. Usually, developers do not have to bother with native languages (avoiding common memory corruption issues) and instead use a well tested code, also when they need to perform advanced or low level functionalities (such as access an hardware peripheral) they can stay in an High Level, Memory Safe language.

Let’s take a quick example on how to interact with the WiFi component, supposing we need to retrieve the actual WiFi state:

import android.net.Wifi
// Get an handle to the WiFi Service
WifiManager Wifi_manager = (WifiManager) GetApplicationContext().getSystemService(Context.WIFI_SERVICE);
// Get the WifiState

With these 2 lines of code we have completed our task:

  1. Get a handle to the WiFi service. The return result of getSystemService() is a generic Object (the handle to the service) that needs to be casted based on the desired service.
  2. From the retrieved manager, we can directly call the desired function, that will perform an IPC and return the result back.

That’s how Android abstract service interactions, enhancing security by simplifying application’s code.

By the way sometimes, due to performance reasons too, there is the necessity to run native code inside an application. This is performed using JNI, that permits to call native functions inside a shared library in the application context. This is pretty common for messaging applications (for example, whatsapp uses PJSP, a C library, for video conferences).

Java Native Interface

As we said, sometimes there is the necessity to use native code such as C/C++ from standard applications. This is permitted using the JNI (Java Native Interface) that lets Java call native functions without drastic differences. The native code is exported in shared libraries inside the lib/ folder (of the APK) where we have binaries compiled for multiple architectures (32/64 bit ARM, x86/x86-64 ), and the the underline system will choose the appropriate one (based on its hardware).

Let’s take an example with Whatsapp:


In this case, inside the lib/ folder there is only the armeabi-v7a folder. That’s because my test device is a 32 bit ARM (https://developer.android.com/ndk/guides/abis) and the system optimized physical space removing unused binaries compiled for other platforms.
These native functions are interesting from a security perspective because they can include memory corruption issues.
In order to track native calls, we can search through the Java code (decompiled) for native declarations:


That’s how a native function is declared, with the native keyword, and later on called as it is a normal Java function.
If you want to extract exported symbols from shared libraries, the nm utility can be come handy (nm -D * | grep <func_name> inside the specific ABI folder can be enough).

If you find an exploitable memory corruption in one application, you also have to consider the application sandbox. If you successfully compromise an application through a remote code execution, you are closed in a sandbox, where you can interact only with application’s related files and functionalities (and its declared android permissions). Of course, this can be part of a chain, with a foothold inside the system you have more attack surface in order to elevate privileges and compromise the system.

Application Sandbox

CVE-2019-11932 is a Whatsapp Remote Code execution caused by a memory corruption while handling GIF animations (here is a demo POC: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=loCq8OTZEGI). This was a critical issue because, also if you are in a sandbox, you can access all whatsapp files (chat databases, backup, media , ..) and, as we know, nowadays whatsapp is the main messaging application.
As we said, Android is a Linux based OS and inherits a lot of its concepts. In this way, Android uses kernel-level Application Sandbox using the UID (Unique User ID). Every application on Android has its own UID and GUID for file permissions and running application process (UID starts from 1000). All applications have a dedicated workspace in /data/data/<app_name> created at the installation time where permissions permits only the application user to read and write in these files:


As you can see, only the user u0_a106 (10106, the UID for the WhatsApp application in my Droid) can access these files, meaning that any other application cannot read its content (only him and the root user).
For some applications (like browsers) there is an additional isolation that literally ‘isolates’ the application using a different UID. These IDs are referred in the Kernel source code as AID_ISOLATED_START (which is 99000) and AID_ISOLATED_END (99999) and limit service interactions. For example, the following snippet is part of the Android Kernel in order to obtain an handle to a service:


uint32_t do_find_service(const uint16_t *s, size_t len, uid_t uid, pid_t spid)
   //find_svc will retrieve a service info structure
   struct svcinfo *si = find_svc(s, len);
   //check if the requested service allow interaction from isolated apps
   if (!si->allow_isolated) {
       // If this service doesn't allow access from isolated processes,
       // then check the uid to see if it is isolated.
       uid_t appid = uid % AID_USER;
       if (appid >= AID_ISOLATED_START && appid <= AID_ISOLATED_END) {
           return 0;
return si->handle

We will deepin in next chapters about the full process to obtain a service handle, but from this snippet you can see where the isolation check is performed. A check is done in the svcinfo structure (structure with service information such as the name, the isolation level and more) and if the target service is not allowed to be called from isolated processes (the caller UID is between AID_ISOLATED_START and AID_ISOLATED_END) the service handle is not returned.

For example, this is the chrome browser inside an isolated process:


You can note that the user id is 99008 (>99000), meaning it is an isolated application process.


In this first article, we introduced basic Android concepts and security aspects that will become handy for next chapters. In the next article, we are going to talk about the Binder, its transactions and the servicemanager.



(Alessandro Groppo)

Happy Hacking Easter (story of privacy violation into an eggshell)

In accordance with ethics of responsible disclosure, the vendor was informed but emails were left unreplied/ignored Timeline

  • First email on 08 March 2016
  • Second email on 14 March 2016


In recent years we have seen an evolution of people lifestyle, and digital identity is becoming part of our real life with all connected risks.Our “digital native” children have access to networked digital technologies, playing with tables, smartphones or smart toys; We must ensure that this new kind of “game” must be safe in the same way as we make for physical one. The research presented here is a privacy analysis of the app Magic Kinder and takes its inspiration from a niece who asked to her dear uncle to install this app on her smartphone. 

The app

The Magic Kinder app is designed for children to involve them in educational games; this app allows messages and media content sharing between family and friends, according to the app description: “The Magic Kinder app will help you and your child always stay in touch with the people you love through the Family Diary.In a few steps you can create your private community with relatives and trusted friends and start sharing emotions, exchanging voice messages, photos and creations whilst **staying connected in a safe and protected environment**”


The sharing function is called FamilyDiary, this function should be confined only to family members and friends, the target of our research is to prove the complete absence of restriction mechanisms for content sharing, this could allow privacy violation of any children, making it possible for a malicious user to read the chat of the children, send them messages, photographs and videos or change user profile info such as date of birth and gender.


Using an http proxy we intercepted the traffic between the app and the backend to take a close look to the api calls to familyDiary, the following interaction between the client app and backend have been analyzed:

Send a message

When a client try to send e message, make a POST request to “/familyDiary/share”, in that request we can observe a JSON with 3 fields:

  1. users
  2. text or content_id
  3. post_type

The users field contain an array of recipients; each recipient has 2 parameter: user_id and user_type

the second field of JSON contains the payload of the message:

  • Text message has the parameter "text" followed by its value
  • Multimedia message has the parameter "content_id" followed by id of the uploaded multimedia content

The value of post_type field is 1 for text message or 3 for images

Our analysis demostrate that tampering user_id parameter in the following POST request it is possible to send a message or an image to any other user_id and not only to those associated with the actual account




Read the familyDiary status

When the client app try to read the status of familiDiary make a GET request to api "familiDiary" with the following parameters:

  • child_id
  • enddate
  • startdate

The response is JSON containing all the data from the target child_id familyDiary, in this case, tampering child_id parameter we can retrieve familyDiary data from all others child_ids


Update user data

When the client tries to update child_id date of birth and gender make a POST request to "user/avatar/update/XXXXXX" (where XXXXXX is the user_id/child_id), in the request we can observe a JSON with these fields:

  • date_of_birth
  • gender

Tampering the user_id/child_id in the url, it is possible to change the "date_of_birth" and the "gender" of any other user.


Last but not least, all communications are transmitted in clear text; no encryption is involved across the whole app. Happy Easter to everybody!:)

(Massimo Bozza)