Studying TLS Usage in Android Apps

TitleStudying TLS Usage in Android Apps
Publication TypeConference Paper
Year of Publication2017
AuthorsRazaghpanah A, Niaki AAkhavan, Vallina-Rodriguez N, Sundaresan S, Amann J, Gill P
KeywordsAndroid, Mobile, Mobile Security, Network Measurements, Secure Sockets Layer, Security Protocols, SSL, TLS, Transport Layer Protocols, Transport Layer Security

Transport Layer Security (TLS), has become the de-facto standard for secure Internet communication. When used correctly, it provides secure data transfer, but used incorrectly, it can leave users vulnerable to attacks while giving them a false sense of security. Numerous efforts have studied the adoption of TLS (and its predecessor, SSL) and its use in the desktop ecosystem, attacks, and vulnerabilities in both desktop clients and servers. However, there is a dearth of knowledge of how TLS is used in mobile platforms. In this paper we use data collected by Lumen, a mobile measurement platform, to analyze how 7,258 Android apps use TLS in the wild. We analyze and fingerprint handshake messages to characterize the TLS APIs and libraries that apps use, and also evaluate weaknesses. We see that about 84% of apps use default OS APIs for TLS. Many apps use third-party TLS libraries; in some cases they are forced to do so because of restricted Android capabilities. Our analysis shows that both approaches have limitations, and that improving TLS security in mobile is not straightforward. Apps that use their own TLS configurations may have vulnerabilities due to developer inexperience, but apps that use OS defaults are vulnerable to certain attacks if the OS is out of date, even if the apps themselves are up to date. We also study certificate verification, and see low prevalence of security measures such as certificate pinning, even among highrisk apps such as those providing financial services, though we did observe major third-party tracking and advertisement services deploying certificate pinning. 


This project is funded by the NSF grants CNS-1564329, CNS1528156, CNS-1350720, and the Data Transparency Lab Grants (2016). The authors would like to acknowledge Eduardo Acha and Prof. Alejandro Hevia (Universidad de Chile) for sharing their list of vulnerable cipher suites. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of the funding bodies.

ICSI Research Group

Networking and Security