An Analysis of the Privacy and Security Risks of Android VPN Permission-enabled Apps

TitleAn Analysis of the Privacy and Security Risks of Android VPN Permission-enabled Apps
Publication TypeConference Paper
Year of Publication2016
AuthorsIkram, M., Vallina-Rodriguez N., Seneviratne S., Kaafar M. Ali, & Paxson V.
Published inProceedings of ACM Internet Measurement Conference

Millions of users worldwide resort to mobile VPN clients to either circumvent censorship or to access geo-blocked content, and more generally for privacy and security purposes. In practice, however, users have little if any guarantees about the corresponding security and privacy settings, and perhaps no practical knowledge about the entities accessing their mobile traffic.
In this paper we provide a first comprehensive analysis of 283 Android apps that use the Android VPN permission, which we extracted from a corpus of more than 1.4 million apps on the Google Play store. We perform a number of passive and active measurements designed to investigate a wide range of security and privacy features and to study the behavior of each VPN-based app. Our analysis includes investigation of possible malware presence, third-party library embedding, and traffic manipulation, as well as gauging user perception of the security and privacy of such apps. Our experiments reveal several instances of VPN apps that expose users to serious privacy and security vulnerabilities, such as use of insecure VPN tunneling protocols, as well as IPv6 and DNS traffic leakage. We also report on a number of apps actively performing TLS interception. Of particular concern are instances of apps that inject JavaScript programs for tracking, advertising, and for redirecting e-commerce traffic to external partners.


This work was partially supported by the Data61/CSIRO and the National Science Foundation (NSF) under grant CNS-1564329. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors or originators and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Data61/CSIRO or of the NSF. The authors would like to thank our shepherd, Ben Zhao, and the anonymous reviewers for constructive feedback on preparation of the final version of this paper. We also thank Nick Kiourtis (Kryptowire) and Angelos Stavrou (Kryptowire) for valuable help.

ICSI Research Group

Networking and Security