From Zygote to Morula: Fortifying Weakened ASLR on Android


There have been many research efforts to secure Android applications and the high-level system mechanisms. The low-level operating system designs have been overlooked partially due to the belief that security issues at this level are similar to those on Linux, which are well-studied. However, we identify that certain Android modifications are at odds with security and result in serious vulnerabilities that need to be addressed immediately. In this paper, we analyze the Zygote process creation model, an Android operating system design for speeding up application launches. Zygote weakens Address Space Layout Randomization (ASLR) because all application processes are created with largely identical memory layouts. We design both remote and local attacks capable of bypassing the weakened ASLR and executing return-oriented programming on Android. We demonstrate the attacks using real applications, such as the Chrome Browser and VLC Media Player. Further, we design and implement Morula, a secure replacement for Zygote. Morula introduces a small amount of code to the Android operating system and can be easily adopted by device vendors. Our evaluation shows that, compared to Zygote, Morula incurs a 13 MB memory increase for each running application but allows each Android process to have an individually randomized memory layout and even a slightly shorter average launch time.

Proceedings of the 35th IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy