The iOS application community is under siege. Every popular application on Apple's app store has been cracked, their security mechanisms broken.
Today's special SC Magazine report reveals that within hours - at times mere minutes - of a paid app hitting Apple’s App store, it is available for free on alternative sites.
These pirate apps are lumped into a lesser known but prolific underground store App Trackr which brims with stolen warez.
This rampant piracy is the product of a global anonymous cracking scene that has operated publicly since at least 2008. Back then, cracking was fragmented, slower and limited to the technically savvy, who plied their trade using scripts and basic tools.
Today apps can be cracked, downloaded, shared and installed at the touch of a button using glossy applications that has opened piracy to the masses.
Of the current top 30 most popular iPhone apps in Australia last week, SC Magazine found that half were cracked and uploaded to App Trackr the same day they were released on Apple’s app store.
Eleven of the most expensive apps ranging between US$69.99 and US$999.99 were also cracked. One specialist dentistry app with a price tag of US$499.99 was cracked on the day it was released.
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So prolific is the piracy that at least one developer has abandoned efforts to sell their app.
Czech-based MadFingerGames was left floored by what the developer said was “unbelievably high” levels of piracy of its $1.00 game Dead Trigger. The level of piracy was such that the developer has dropped the price tag altogether.
App security vendor Axran, which ran a study on piracy earlier this year, cited KPMG figures that put the value of the app development industry at US$139.5 billion. The security vendor said more than 92 percent of paid iOS apps were pirated, and every paid Android app had been ripped off.
Apple has refused to discuss app piracy with SC.
The company was asked whether its application design could be hardened against reverse engineering efforts - central to the pirating of apps. With a multi-billion dollar industry at stake, the company has refused to respond.
What is known is that Cupertino has tried, and failed, to stop the piracy onslaught. Late last year – and possibly earlier – it attempted to tackle App Trackr by issuing take down notices.
In response, pirates introduce CAPTCHA image verification to hinder the removal of copyright apps from file sharing websites and relocated content servers.
At best, the effort increased the operating costs of the pirate machine, prompting developers to call for donations and place advertisements within the download process.
But the pirates inevitably prevailed, and even mocked Apple’s take down efforts.
In 2009, each of the three million pirates a day who wanted to access the then infamous piracy site Appulous had to answer questions known only to cracking scene insiders. One quiz took a stab at Apple lawyer Ian Ramage, the author of several take down requests:
“I work for Apple’s law firm and have been trying to get Appulous shut down since the beginning. I wish I was better at my job :( What’s my first and last name?”
By far the most popular method of accessing pirated Apple apps is through AppTrackr, and its related iOS application Installous.
Together, these tools allow users of jailbroken devices to download and install pirated apps.
Installous mimicks the design of Apple’s App store, lacking only user reviews and app price tags. Users can browse the most popular apps in a given category and download the warez from Bit Torrent or any number of file sharing websites. Those apps can then be installed.
The equally stylish Crackulous iOS app allows users to nominate legitimate apps downloaded from Apple’s App Store and in a single click, break the digital rights management and security controls protecting them.
The apps can then be uploaded from within the app to App Trackr or any file sharing site of a user's choosing.
“The method used is crude but simple,” states a Hackulous community wiki. “A debugger is attached to the executable and is used to dump the decrypted segments before the executable launches. The decrypted segments are then transposed onto the original binary, and the LC_ENCRYPTION_INFO load command's cryptid field is changed to 0.”
Attempts to mitigate this process have failed, Axran's report notes. App developers have applied traditional practices like simple code obfuscation, encryption, Security Development Lifecycle and app vulnerability testing, but none have helped against this type of reverse engineering.
“These approaches and tools continue to be relevant and important to avoid leaving flaws and holes in the apps (like buffer overflows and SQL injection) however, these approaches do not provide real-time integrity protection and security against tampering/reverse-engineering based attacks," the report noted.
“Vulnerability-free code can still be easily reverse-engineered and tampered resulting in the hacker compromising the integrity of the app.”
The company, which sells a product to secure apps, estimated that less than five percent of apps were secured against cracking.
“App owners are clearly far behind hackers in their understanding and sophistication around how easily apps can be compromised.”
Read on to page two: The hacking scene continues to flourish....
The Apple app cracking scene meanwhile continues to flourish.
Hackulous, the nerve centre of the cracking effort, has over approximately five years evolved from a private network into a slick public repository that serves many millions of visitors.
In a token anarchic chat room, users post links to cracked apps and request help to reverse engineer others, while moderating Hackulous founders sit by.
In other areas, the founders organise into committees and schedule meetings to discuss the future of Hacklous, its goals, structure and what information should and should not be public
These founders do not see themselves as pirates: They are frustrated consumers, not content with Apple’s business model that demands users pay for apps before testing them.
“Hackulous is a community dedicated to providing trials for iOS applications,” the site states. “We are home to all of the significant advances in the cracked apps community, including the cracking process, installation on mobile devices, patches, bluetooth/wifi app sharing, and application indexing.”
The evolution of the Hackulous flagship Installous from a crass command line tool into an interface rivalling Apple’s own store - together with its immense popularity among pirates - may cause some outsiders to question whether this stance continues to hold true.
For at least one Hackulous founder the movement has gone too far. Kytek, one of the original founders of Hackulous, left the scene once the "honest hackers" were outnumbered by pirates.
Kytek operated Appulous, the biggest cracked app store of its time, some four years ago. He left a note on what remains of the site, explaining how the scene changed for the worse.
“The vision was not piracy. Not even close. People's frustration over Apple's terrible App Store was what sparked our community. We were all elated when Apple finally allowed third-party applications, but fell intensely annoyed after we bought app after app that made itself out to be incredible in its description, but was worthless after purchase.”
“…the hardcore pirates had moved in and started taking the apps for free, with no intention to purchase them if they liked them. It was inevitable and no one was so naive as to think it wouldn't happen. This alone wasn't what turned things sour for me. It was intensely frustrating to see our community overrun by people interested in piracy alone, who thought they were somehow entitled to free iPhone apps.”