Apple has made a significant effort to build and maintain a healthy
and clean app ecosystem. The essential contributing component to this
status quo is the App Store, which is protected by a thorough vetting
process that scrutinizes all submitted applications. While the process
is intended to protect iOS users and ensure apps meet Apple’s
standards for security and integrity, developers who have experienced
the process would agree that it can be difficult and time consuming.
The same process then must be followed when publishing a new release
or issuing a patched version of an existing app, which can be
extremely frustrating when a developer wants to patch a severe bug or
security vulnerability impacting existing app users.
The developer community has been searching for alternatives, and
with some success. A set of solutions now offer a more efficient iOS
app deployment experience, giving app developers the ability to update
their code as they see fit and deploy patches to users’ devices
immediately. While these technologies provide a more autonomous
development experience, they do not meet the same security standards
that Apple has attempted to maintain. Worse, these methods might be
the Achilles heel to the walled garden of Apple’s App Store.
In this series of articles, FireEye mobile security researchers
examine the security risks of iOS apps that employ these alternate
solutions for hot patching, and seek to prevent unintended security
compromises in the iOS app ecosystem.
As the first installment of this series, we look into an open source
Episode 1. JSPatch
JSPatch is an open source project – built on top of Apple’s
alternative to Apple’s arduous and unpredictable review process in
situations where the timely delivery of hot fixes for severe bugs is
vital. In the author’s own words (bold added for emphasis):
JSPatch bridges Objective-C and
The JSPatch author, using the alias Bang, provided a common
example of how JSPatch can be used to update a faulty iOS app
on his blog:
Figure 1 shows an Objc implementation of a
UITableViewController with class name
JPTableViewController that provides data population via the
selector tableView:didSelectRowAtIndexPath:. At line 5, it
retrieves data from the backend source represented by an array of
strings with an index mapping to the selected row number. In many
cases, this functions fine; however, when the row index exceeds the
range of the data source array, which can easily happen, the program
will throw an exception and subsequently cause the app to crash.
Crashing an app is never an appealing experience for users.
Figure 1. Buggy Objc code without JSPatch
Within the realm of Apple-provided technologies, the way to
remediate this situation is to rebuild the application with updated
code to fix the bug and submit the newly built app to the App Store
for approval. While the review process for updated apps often takes
less time than the initial submission review, the process can still be
time-consuming, unpredictable, and can potentially cause loss of
business if app fixes are not delivered in a timely and controlled manner.
However, if the original app is embedded with the JSPatch
(hxxp://cnbang.net/bugfix.JS in the above example) is remotely
controlled by the app developer. It is delivered to the app through
Figure 2 shows the standard way of setting up JSPatch in an
patch when the app starts:
Figure 2. Objc code enabling JSPatch in an app
JSPatch is indeed lightweight. In this case, the only additional
work to enable it is to add seven lines of code to the
application:didFiishLaunchingWithOptions: selector. Figure 3
hxxp://cnbang.net/bugfix.JS that is used to patch the faulty code.
Figure 3. JSPatch hot patch fixing index out of
bound bug in Figure 1
Malicious Capability Showcase
JSPatch is a boon to iOS developers. In the right hands, it can
be used to quickly and effectively deploy patches and code updates.
But in a non-utopian world like ours, we need to assume that bad
actors will leverage this technology for unintended purposes.
Specifically, if an attacker is able to tamper with the content of
attacks can be successfully performed against an App Store application.
We randomly picked a legitimate app
 with JSPatch enabled from the App Store. The
logistics of setting up the JSPatch platform and resources for code
patching are packaged in this routine [AppDelegate
excuteJSPatch:], as shown in Figure 4
Figure 4. JSPatch setup in the targeted app
There is a sequence of flow from the app entry point (in this case
updates or patch code is written to the file system. This process
involves communicating with the remote server to retrieve the patch
patch code is hashed and stored at the location shown in Figure 5. The
corresponding content is shown in Figure 6 in Base64-encoded format:
Figure 6. Encrypted patch content
While the target app developer has taken steps to secure this
sensitive data from prying eyes by employing Base64 encoding on top of
a symmetric encryption, one can easily render this attempt futile by
running a few
commands through Cycript. The patch code, once decrypted, is
shown in Figure 7:
Figure 7. Decrypted original patch content
retrieved from remote server
This is the content that gets loaded and executed by
JPEngine, the component provided by the JSPatch framework
embedded in the target app. To change the behavior of the running app,
we show several possibilities for performing malicious actions that
are against Apple’s App Review Guidelines. Although
the examples below are from a jailbroken device, we have demonstrated
that they will work on non-jailbroken devices as well.
Example 1: Load arbitrary public frameworks into app process
a. Example public framework: /System/Library/Frameworks/Accounts.framework
b. Private APIs used by public framework:
[ACAccountStore init], [ACAccountStore allAccountTypes]
The target app discussed above, when running, loads the frameworks
shown in Figure 8 into its process memory:
Figure 8. iOS frameworks loaded by the target app
Note that the list above – generated from the Apple-approved iOS app
binary – does not contain Accounts.framework. Therefore, any
“dangerous” or “risky” operations that rely on the APIs provided by
code shown in Figure 9 invalidates that assumption.
Accounts.framework into the app process
patch, it could dynamically load a public framework,
Accounts.framework, into the running process. Once the
framework is loaded, the script has full access to all of the
framework’s APIs. Figure 10 shows the outcome of executing the private
API [ACAccountStore allAccountTypes], which outputs 36 account
types on the test device. This added behavior does not require
the app to be rebuilt, nor does it require another review through the
Figure 10. The screenshot of the console log for
The above demonstration highlights a serious security risk for iOS
app users and app developers. The JSPatch technology potentially
allows an individual to effectively circumvent the protection imposed
by the App Store review process and perform arbitrary and powerful
actions on the device without consent from the users. The dynamic
nature of the code makes it extremely difficult to catch a malicious
actor in action. We are not providing any meaningful exploit in this
blog post, but instead only pointing out the possibilities to avoid
low-skilled attackers taking advantage of off-the-shelf exploits.
Example 2: Load arbitrary private frameworks into app process
a. Example private framework: /System/Library/PrivateFrameworks/BluetoothManager.framework
b. Private APIs used by example framework:
[BluetoothManager connectedDevices], [BluetoothDevice name]
could instruct an app to load an arbitrary private framework, such as
the BluetoothManager.framework, and further invoke private APIs
to change the state of the device. iOS private frameworks are
intended to be used solely by Apple-provided apps. While there is no
official public documentation regarding the usage of private
frameworks, it is common knowledge that many of them provide private
access to low-level system functionalities that may allow an app to
circumvent security controls put in place by the OS. The App Store has
a strict policy prohibiting third party apps from using any private
frameworks. However, it is worth pointing out that the operating
system does not differentiate Apple apps’ private framework usage and
a third party app’s private framework usage. It is simply the App
Store policy that bans third party use.
file is not subject to the App Store’s vetting. Figure 11 shows the
code for loading the BluetoothManager.framework and utilizing
APIs to read and change the states of Bluetooth of the host device.
Figure 12 shows the corresponding console outputs.
BluetoothManager.framework into the app process
Figure 12. The screenshot of the console log for
Example 3: Change system properties via private API
a. Example dependent framework:
b. Private API used by example framework:
Consider a target app that is built with the public framework
CoreTelephony.framework. Apple documentation explains that this
framework allows one to obtain information about a user’s home
cellular service provider. It exposes several public APIs to
developers to achieve this, but [CTTelephonyNetworkInfo
updateRadioAccessTechnology:] is not one of them. However, as
shown in Figure 13 and Figure 14, we can successfully use this private
API to update the device cellular service status by changing the radio
technology from CTRadioAccessTechnologyHSDPA to
CTRadioAccessTechnologyLTE without Apple’s consent.
Radio Access Technology of the test device
Figure 14. Corresponding execution output of the
Example 4: Access to Photo Album (sensitive data) via public APIs
a. Example loaded framework: /System/Library/Frameworks/Photos.framework
b. Public APIs: [PHAsset fetchAssetsWithMediaType:options:]
Privacy violations are a major concern for mobile users. Any actions
performed on a device that involve accessing and using sensitive user
data (including contacts, text messages, photos, videos, notes, call
logs, and so on) should be justified within the context of the service
provided by the app. However, Figure 15 and Figure 16 show how we can
access the user’s photo album by leveraging the private APIs from
built-in Photo.framework to harvest the metadata of photos.
With a bit more code, one can export this image data to a remote
location without the user’s knowledge.
Figure 16. Corresponding output of the above
Example 5: Access to Pasteboard in real time
a. Example Framework: /System/Library/Frameworks/UIKit.framework
b. APIs: [UIPasteboard strings], [UIPasteboard
items], [UIPasteboard string]
iOS pasteboard is one of the mechanisms that
allows a user to transfer data between apps. Some security researchers
have raised concerns regarding its security, since
pasteboard can be used to transfer sensitive data such as accounts and
that, when running on the JSPatch framework, scrapes all the string
contents off the pasteboard and displays them on the console. Figure
18 shows the output when this function is injected into the target
application on a device.
pasteboard which might contain sensitive information
Figure 18. Console output of the scraped content
from pasteboard by code in Figure 17
We have shown five examples utilizing JSPatch as an attack vector,
and the potential for more is only constrained by an attacker’s
imagination and creativity.
Much of iOS’ native capability is dependent on C functions (for
example, dlopen(), UIGetImageScreen()). Due to the fact
that C functions cannot be reflectively invoked, JSPatch does not
This dependency on additional Objective C code to expose C functions
casts limitations on the ability of a malicious actor to perform
operations such as taking stealth screenshots, sending and
intercepting text messages without consent, stealing photos from the
gallery, or stealthily recording audio. But these limitations can be
easily lifted should an app developer choose to add a bit more
Objective C code to wrap and expose these C functions. In fact, the
JSPatch author could offer such support to app developers in the near
future through more usable and convenient interfaces, granted there is
enough demand. In this case, all of the above operations could become
reality without Apple’s consent.
It is a general belief that iOS devices are more secure than mobile
devices running other operating systems; however, one has to bear in
mind that the elements contributing to this status quo are
multi-faceted. The core of Apple’s security controls to provide and
maintain a secure ecosystem for iOS users and developers is their
walled garden – the App Store. Apps distributed through the App Store
are significantly more difficult to leverage in meaningful attacks. To
this day, two main attack vectors make up all previously disclosed
attacks against the iOS platform:
1. Jailbroken iOS devices that allow unsigned or ill-signed apps
to be installed due to the disabled signature checking function. In
some cases, the sandbox restrictions are lifted, which allows apps to
function outside of the sandbox.
2. App sideloading via Enterprise Certifications on
non-jailbroken devices. FireEye published a series of reports that detailed attacks exploiting this
attack surface, and recent reports show a continued focus on this
known attack vector.
However, as we have highlighted in this report, JSPatch offers an
attack vector that does not require sideloading or a jailbroken device
for an attack to succeed. It is not difficult to identify that the
potential Achilles heel in this app development architecture. Since
there are few to zero security measures to ensure the security
properties of this file, the following scenarios for attacking the app
and the user are conceivable:
● Precondition: 1) App embeds JSPatch platform;
2) App Developer has malicious intentions.
○ Consequences: The app developer can utilize all the
Private APIs provided by the loaded frameworks to perform actions that
are not advertised to Apple or the users. Since the developer has
temporary, dynamic, stealthy, and evasive. Such an attack, when in
place, will pose a big risk to all stakeholders involved.
○ Figure 19 demonstrates a scenario of this type of attack:
Figure 19. Threat model for JSPatch used by a
malicious app developer
● Precondition: 1) Third-party ad SDK embeds JSPatch
platform; 2) Host app uses the ad SDK; 3) Ad SDK provider has
malicious intention against the host app.
○ Consequences: 1) Ad SDK can exfiltrate data from the
app sandbox; 2) Ad SDK can change the behavior of the host app; 3) Ad
SDK can perform actions on behalf of the host app against the OS.
○ This attack scenario is shown in Figure 20:
Figure 20. Threat model for JSPatch used by a
third-party library provider
The FireEye discovery of iBackdoor in 2015 is an alarming example of
displaced trust within the iOS development community, and serves as a
sneak peek into this type of overlooked threat.
● Precondition: 1) App embeds JSPatch platform;
2) App Developer is legitimate; 3) App does not protect the
A malicious actor performs a man-in-the-middle (MITM) attack that
○ Consequences: MITM can exfiltrate app contents within
the sandbox; MITM can perform actions through Private API by
leveraging host app as a proxy.
○ This attack scenario is shown in Figure 21:
Figure 21. Threat model for JSPatch used by an
app targeted by MITM
JSPatch originated from China. Since its release in 2015, it
has garnered success within the Chinese region. According to JSPatch,
many popular and high profile Chinese apps have adopted this
technology. FireEye app scanning found a total 1,220 apps in
the App Store that utilize JSPatch.
We also found that developers outside of China have adopted this
framework. On one hand, this indicates that JSPatch is a useful and
desirable technology in the iOS development world. On the other hand,
it signals that users are at greater risk of being attacked –
particularly if precautions are not taken to ensure the security of
all parties involved. Despite the risks posed by JSPatch, FireEye has
not identified any of the aforementioned applications as being
Food For Thought
Many applaud Apple’s App Store for helping to keep iOS malware at
bay. While it is undeniably true that the App Store plays a critical
role in winning this acclaim, it is at the cost of app developers’
time and resources.
One of the manifestations of such a cost is the app hot patching
process, where a simple bug fix has to go through an app review
process that subjects the developers to an average waiting
time of seven days before updated code is approved.
Thus, it is not surprising to see developers seeking various solutions
that attempt to bypass this wait period, but which lead to unintended
security risks that may catch Apple off guard.
JSPatch is one of several different offerings that provide a
low-cost and streamlined patching process for iOS developers. All of
these offerings expose a similar attack vector that allows patching
scripts to alter the app behavior at runtime, without the constraints
imposed by the App Store’s vetting process. Our demonstration of
abusing JSPatch capabilities for malicious gain, as well as our
presentation of different attack scenarios, highlights an urgent
problem and an imperative need for a better solution – notably due to
a growing number of app developers in China and beyond having adopted JSPatch.
Many developers have doubts that the App Store would accept
download code in any way or form will be rejected. However, the
JSPatch community argues it is in compliance with Apple’s iOS
Developer Program Information, which makes an exception to
scripts and code downloaded and run by Apple’s built-in WebKit
not change the primary purpose of the application by providing
features or functionality that are inconsistent with the intended and
advertised purpose of the application as submitted to the App Store.
primary purpose of the application) is clearly prohibited by the App
Store policy. JSPatch is walking a fine line, but it is not alone. In
our coming reports, we intend to similarly examine more solutions in
order to find a better solution that satisfies Apple and the developer
community without jeopardizing the users security experience. Stay tuned!
 We have contacted the app provider regarding
the issue. In order to protect the app vendor and its users, we choose
to not disclose the identity before they have this issue
 The redacted part is the hardcoded decryption key.