The Boston Diaries

The ongoing saga of a programmer who doesn't live in Boston, nor does he even like Boston, but yet named his weblog/journal “The Boston Diaries.”

Go figure.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

How do I know you're allowed to send me this?

I was pulled into an improptu design meeting at work. Originally it was to discuss the format of a new URI for our Android application to use, but it quickly shifted into an authentication issue on the Android platform.

I don't work on Android applications (I do the call-processing on the telephony network side, not the cellphone side), so my terminology might be a bit off but the gist of the issue is our application, named Awesome Application (name changed to protect me), comes preinstalled on Android phones. We've allowed another preinstalled application, Bodacious Bronies (name completely made up), not written by us, to, when a certain action is done by the user in Bodacious Bronies, launches our application. This is done by Awesome Application listening for an intent sent by Bodacious Bronies, and then doing it's thing.

But the issue the our developer, D, had with this is to prevent the Malevolent Malcontent application (for example) from spamming Awesome Application with repeated intents. The fear here is that Malevolent Malcontent could so annoy the user with our program always popping up that the user would then uninstall Awesome Application, or worse, bitch, complain and moan to the phone carrier to remove or disable our application post-haste.

Our application could check the uid or the package name of the intent sender and only do the thing it does if the sending application is allowed, but neither the uid or the package name is fixed; either one can change with an update, and if our application isn't updated with the new uid or package name, then our app does nothing since it doesn't know the intent is from an allowed application.

And other methods, like having Bodacious Bronies sign the intent (somehow) is still subject to attacks; in order to sign the intent, a private key needs to be stored with Bodacious Bronies, (and we were sure that the creators of Bodacious Bronies would not want to include a private key with the application) and what's to stop the creators of Malevolent Malcontent from nabbing that private key (the developer of Malevolent Malcontent could get an Android phone, jailbreak it, and extract the Bodacious Bronies private key) and forge intents?

Security is hard. So is authentication.

There is a way to keep intents from being broadcast to every application. D was trying to find a way to avoid this, as one of our customers wanted the broadcast method of intents (for some reason—again, I'm not an Android developer so I'm not sure what the trade-offs are here) but he decided that the best course of action is to use the non-broadcast intent method. Now he has to convince the Powers-That-Be that this is the only way.

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