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M8: Code Tampering

Once a mobile application is delivered and installed on a device, both the code and data will be available there. This gives the adversary the chance to directly modify the code, manipulate memory content, change or replace system APIs, or simply modify application’s data and resources. This is known as Code Tampering.

Rogue mobile applications play an important role in fraud-based attacks, becoming even more prevalent than malware. Typically attackers are able to exploit code modification by tricking users into installing malicious/modified apps via phishing attacks.

Notice that Kotlin has no advantage over plain Java when it comes to avoiding reverse engineering.

Technically, all mobile applications are vulnerable to code tampering, but some are historically more targeted (e.g. mobile games) than others. Deciding whether or not to address this risk is a matter of business impact that can range from revenue loss to reputational damage.

OWASP Reverse Engineering and Code Modification Prevention Project is a great reference on how to detect and prevent Reverse Engineering and Code Modification. Generally speaking, applications should be able to detect at runtime whether code was added or removed based upon what they know about their integrity at compile time.

To address this weakness on Goatlin, we followed OWASP recommendation on Android Root detection. The RootDetectionHelper class implements a few techniques such as:

  • Whether the kernel was signed with custom keys generated by a third-party developer:
    private fun detectDeveloperBuild(): Boolean {
      val buildTags: String = Build.TAGS
      return buildTags.contains("test-keys")
  • OTA certificates are available:
    private fun detectOTACertificates(): Boolean {
      val otaCerts: File = File("/etc/security/")
      return otaCerts.exists()
  • Well-known applications to gain root access on Android devices are installed:
    private fun detectRootedAPKs(ctx: Context): Boolean {
      val knownRootedAPKs: Array<String> = arrayOf(
      val pm: PackageManager = ctx.packageManager
      for(uri in knownRootedAPKs) {
          try {
              pm.getPackageInfo(uri, PackageManager.GET_ACTIVITIES)
              return true
          } catch (e: PackageManager.NameNotFoundException) {
              // application is not installed
      return false
  • su binary is available:
    private fun detectForSUBinaries(): Boolean {
      var suBinaries: Array<String> = arrayOf(
      for (bin in suBinaries) {
          if (File(bin).exists()) {
              return true
      return false
  • Attempt to run su and check the id of current user:

To prevent the application to run on a Rooted environment, the RootDetectionHelper.check() method, which combines all the described techniques, is called on our main activity (Login). If a Rooted environment is detected, then the user is presented a dialog and the application is forced to close:

// ...
class LoginActivity : AppCompatActivity(), LoaderCallbacks<Cursor> {
    // ...
    override fun onCreate(savedInstanceState: Bundle?) {

        if (RootDetectionHelper.check(applicationContext)) {
        //  ...
    // ...
    private fun forceCloseApp() {
        val dialog: AlertDialog.Builder = AlertDialog.Builder(this)

                .setMessage("The application can not run on rooted devices")
                .setPositiveButton("Close Application", DialogInterface.OnClickListener {
                    _, _ -> finish()

        val alert: AlertDialog = dialog.create()

        alert.setTitle("Unsafe Device")