The secret behind “unkillable” Android backdoor called xHelper has been revealed

In February, a researcher detailed a widely circulating Android backdoor that’s so pernicious that it survives factory resets, a trait that makes the malware impossible to remove without taking unusual measures.

The analysis found that the unusual persistence was the result of rogue folders containing a trojan installer, neither of which was removed by a reset. The trojan dropper would then reinstall the backdoor in the event of a reset. Despite those insights, the researcher still didn’t know precisely how that happened. Now, a different researcher has filled in the missing pieces. More about that later. First, a brief summary of xHelper.

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Once installed, xHelper installs a backdoor that remotely installs apps downloaded from an attacker-controlled server. It also executes commands as a superuser, a powerful privilege setting that gives the malware unfettered system rights.

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Last week, Kaspersky Lab researcher Igor Golovin published a post that filled in some of the gaps. The reinfections, he said, were the result of files that were downloaded and installed by a notorious trojan known as Triada, which ran once the xHelper app was installed. Triada roots the devices and then uses its powerful system rights to install a series of malicious files directly into the system partition. It does this by remounting the system partition in write mode. To make the files even more persistent, Triada gives them an immutable attribute, which prevents deleting, even by superusers. (Interestingly, the attribute can be deleted using the chattr command.)

A file named install-recovery.sh makes calls to files added to the /system/xbin folder. That allows the malware to run each time the device is rebooted. The result is what Golovin described as an “unkillable” infection that has extraordinary control over a device.

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The researcher initially thought that it might be possible to remove xHelper by remounting the system partition in write mode to delete the malicious files stored there. He eventually abandoned that theory.

“Triada’s creators also contemplated this question, and duly applied another protection technique that involved modifying the system library /system/lib/libc.so,” Golovin explained. “This library contains common code used by almost all executable files on the device. Triada substitutes its own code for the mount function (used to mount file systems) in libc, thereby preventing the user from mounting the /system partition in write mode.”

Fortunately, the reinfection method divined in last week’s report works only on devices running older Android versions with known rooting vulnerabilities. Golovin, however, held out the possibility that, in some cases, xHelper may maintain persistence through malicious files that come preinstalled on phones or tablets.

People can disinfect devices by using their recovery mode, when available, to replace the infected libc.so file with the legitimate one included with the original firmware. Users can then either remove all malware from the system partition or, simpler still, reflash the device.

Source: The secret behind “unkillable” Android backdoor called xHelper has been revealed | Ars Technica