Mobile Application Security : BlackBerry Security - Development and Security Testing

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All third-party applications written for the BlackBerry must be written in Java or use one of RIM’s alternate application development runtimes. The universal use of managed runtimes sacrifices a small amount of speed in favor of reducing the device’s attack surface and increasing developer productivity.

In addition to the Java application runtime, there is the MDS runtime. MDS applications are built using a Visual Studio plug-in, a data-driven presentation language, JavaScript, and specially written web services. Enterprises develop MDS applications to interact with backend systems, such as their inventory or sales systems.

Coding Environment

RIM provides two free Java IDEs: the BlackBerry Java Development Environment (JDE) and the BlackBerry JDE plug-in for Eclipse. The choice of toolset comes down to developer preference because both are similar and freely downloadable from RIM ( For those that abhor GUIs, or have an automated build environment, a command-line toolset is available. For all tools, free registration may be required. The toolset works best on Windows, with some tools not working completely or at all on other operating systems. Some enterprising hackers have reported success running under a Windows emulator such as WINE.

The Java development environments include all of the tools and simulators needed to develop and test BlackBerry Java applications. Prior to each BlackBerry OS release, the JDE is updated with new simulators, libraries, and documentation.

From within the JDE or the Eclipse plug-in, you can select the OS version to target, build applications, deploy to the simulator, and debug application code. For more information on configuring and installing the JDE, see RIM’s developer documentation. Applications targeted for older versions of the JDE will still run on newer devices, so developers typically build with the first version of the JDE that includes all of the features they need.


When you’re writing a BlackBerry application in Eclipse, the project must be “Activated for BlackBerry.” This can be done by right-clicking on the project in the Package Explorer and verifying that the Activated for BlackBerry option is enabled. This may be the root cause of a project refusing to deploy to a device and is directly to blame for this author’s hair loss.

Java code compiled for the BlackBerry goes through the following steps using the tools mentioned:

  1. Code is compiled using the javac.exe compiler, and an application JAR file is generated. At this point, all Java methods, constructs, and classes are fair game.

  2. The preverify.exe tool is run against the generated JAR files and looks for code constructs that are not allowed in JME applications (for example, calls to Java native invocation or invalid Java instructions). The pre-verifier is used in both BlackBerry and JME development. Once the pre-verifier step completes, the classes are marked as verified.

  3. RIM’s compiler, rapc.exe, converts the verified JAR file to a BlackBerry executable COD file. Rapc is an optimizing compiler that removes symbolic information and adds RIM proprietary instructions to the binary in order to reduce size and improve performance.

  4. If the application is going to be deployed to a real device or to a simulator with security enabled, the COD file is signed using the RIM Signature Tool and the developer’s signing keys. For more details on BlackBerry code signing, see the section titled “Permissions and User Controls.”


The RIM BlackBerry simulator (a.k.a. fledge.exe) emulates all BlackBerry functionality. Convienently, the simulator and images are bundled with both the Eclipse plug-in and the JDE or are downloadable as a separate package. The simulator natively supports GPS emulation, cellular calls, holstering, and anything else that one would want to do with a BlackBerry.

By default, the BlackBerry simulator files are installed and bundled along with the JDE. To launch the simulator from Eclipse, create a BlackBerry project in the development environment, write the application’s code, and then run the DebugServer profile by clicking on the “play” icon in the toolbar. Eclipse will automatically push the compiled application to the simulator, and it will be available on the Applications screen. If there are any errors, the application will not be loaded and the icon will not show up in the BlackBerry’s Applications menu.

To control the behavior of the simulator, select and configure the Run profile within Eclipse or the JDE. Simulator options are on the Simulator tab of the Run profile and are divided into even more options. The following options are the most relevant when you’re performing security testing:

  • Simulator tab | General tab | Enable Device Security By default, the simulator does not enforce device security requirements. Enabling this option will cause the BlackBerry simulator to enforce signature checks and cause the security subsystem to behave like an actual device.

  • Simulator tab | General tab | Launch Mobile Data System Connection Service (MDS-CS) with Simulator Unless the device is configured for direct Internet access, MDS is required to browse the web and make network connections. For simple application testing, it is easiest to launch the MDS-CS emulator, which proxies emulator network traffic through the PC’s network connection.

When doing security testing, create one simulator profile with device security enabled and one without. This makes it easier to toggle between the two modes to learn more about how the BlackBerry device’s security system works.


Debugging live code is a great way to learn about application and operating system internals. Thankfully, both Eclipse and the JDE include a debugger for runtime analysis of BlackBerry Java applications running in either the simulator or on an actual device. To launch custom application code in either environment, click the Debug button on the toolbar. The IDE will launch the simulator, deploy the application, and connect the debugger. After the application is launched, any breakpoints or unhandled exceptions will cause the debugger to break, thus providing you an opportunity to inspect or modify variables and to control execution.

To debug applications on a live BlackBerry device, connect the device to the computer using a USB cable. Within the IDE, select the BlackBerry Device profile. If the device is not automatically detected, open up the property pages and ensure that the appropriate BlackBerry device is associated with this debug profile. To do this, open the debug profile’s property page and click the BlackBerry Device tab. Select the appropriate device from the dropdown list. Remember that all real-world BlackBerry devices enforce code signing, and applications that access privileged APIs will be blocked from running unless they are signed.

Eclipse and the JDE do not allow debugging of applications without source code or “.debug” symbol files. When an exception occurs in a program without debug information, the IDE will display an error. The IDE will not display any disassembly because it is not capable of disassembling the BlackBerry JVM’s proprietary instructions. Despite this limitation, the debugger is a valuable reverse engineering tool for figuring out how the BlackBerry OS works.

For example, create an application which accesses contact information through the javax.microedition.pim.ContactList JME class. Build the application, skip signing, and deploy it on a security-enabled simulator with the debugger attached. The BlackBerry will display a prompt asking if the application should be granted permissions to access personal data. Deny this prompt and a JVM security exception will occur and cause the debugger to break. Here is where it gets interesting; the debugger will show the following stack trace in the Thread information window:

MIDletSecurity.checkPermission(int, boolean, boolean, boolean,
String) line: 518
MIDletSecurity.checkPermission(int) line: 382
PIMImpl.openPIMList(int, int) line: 80
ContactTestScreen.OpenContactItem() line: 112
ContactTestApp.<init>() line: 66
ContactTestApp.main(String[]) line: 49

This experiment reveals several details about what is going on under the covers. First, PIMImpl.openPIMList is the class actually implementing the ContactList functionality. Second, the MIDletSecurity class performs the security check upon object open and not at application startup. Last of all, the names of the internal security classes are revealed, and we know where to look to find out more about the permission system.


The behavior for MIDP2 and RIM Controlled classes is different. Unsigned applications that use RIM Controlled classes will fail to load and a security message will be displayed to the user. More information is provided in the section “Permissions and User Controls.”


The BlackBerry JVM uses an extended JME instruction set and a custom package format called a COD file. To make reversing more difficult and improve performance, RIM’s compiler removes debug information and collapses member names when compiling code. The custom instruction set and executable file format are not officially documented, and what is known is spread across the Internet in various blog posts and message boards. All these hurdles make things look pretty rough to the aspiring BlackBerry engineer.

Thankfully, some members of the reverse-engineering community have released information about COD files and some tools to disassemble BlackBerry applications. Most notable are Dr. Bolsen for his coddec tool and Stephen Lawler for updates and instructions. Coddec will do a half decompile/half disassemble on BlackBerry COD files. The disassembly is actually created by modified versions of classes that were decompiled from RIM’s rapc compiler.

Unfortunately, coddec does not come with much documentation, and getting it to build can be slightly challenging. To build and run the tool, follow these instructions, which are based on Stephen Lawler’s work:

  1. Install the Java Development Kit (JDK); these instructions are tested with JDK 1.6.0 R13. Also install the BlackBerry JDE, because coddec uses it in its disassembly.

  2. Download coddec from Dr. Bolsen’s website ( and extract the coddec archive to a local directory. For this example, we will call that directory c:\coddec.

  3. Download Stephen Lawler’s coddec patch (

  4. Apply the patch using the GNU patch command or TortoiseMerge.

  5. The patch has one mistake in it, so manually change the code

    c c1 = new c(l, j, i1, dataoutputstream1);

    in \net\rim\tools\compiler\exec\ to the following:

    c_static c1 = new c_static(l, j, i1, dataoutputstream1);
  6. Copy net_rim_api.jar from \Program Files\Research In Motion\BlackBerry JDE 4.7.0\lib to the c:\coddec directory. This file contains APIs that will be referenced by coddec.

  7. Collect a list of files by running the following command in the c:\coddec directory:

    dir /s /b *.java > files.txt
  8. Run the following command from a Windows command prompt that has the Java compiler in the path:

    for /f %x in (files.txt) do
    (javac.exe -Xlint:unchecked -cp .\;c:\coddec %x)

    This command compiles all of the files. There will be lots of warnings (about 100) but there should be no errors.

  9. Run coddec from the command prompt in the c:\coddec directory by typing java -cp . HelloWorld.cod. HelloWorld.cod is the name of the COD file to be decompiled.

  10. The results will be output into the c:\coddec\decompiled directory.

Coddec’s output is a combination of decompilation and disassembly of files. Consider the following sample source code (of a thread function that should only be written by those testing threads):

public void run() {
while(true) {
try {
if (dier == 1) { return; }
} catch (InterruptedException e) { }

Coddec is able to reconstruct the following listing from the COD file. )

//Notice that the method name has been recovered.
public final run(com.rim.samples.device.helloworlddemo.PrimeThread);
//Top of the while loop
sipush 3000
//Invoke the Thread.sleep function
invokestatic_lib sleep(long) // Thread
aload_0_getfield dier

//Compare the "dier" field to constant 1
if_icmpne Label1
goto Label1

This disassembly will certainly not win a beauty competition, but it is definitely an improvement over raw binary in COD files and is usable for reversing applications. The decompiler and custom patching can also be used to further explore the OS using the simulator—for example, decompiling some of the network classes, changing their behavior, recompiling, and then substituting the modified Java class in the original JAR. The modified code can now be run in the simulator. This trick will not work on real devices because they enforce code signing for OS code.

As a final note, individual COD files have a maximum size of 64KB. When a file exceeds this maximum, the rapc compiler will break the file apart, append a piece number to the filename (for example, HelloWorld-1.COD, HelloWorld-2.COD), and create a new COD file containing the parts. These generated COD files are actually ZIP files in disguise and can easily be recognized by the “PK” marker in the first few bytes of the file. To decompile these files, change the file extension to .zip, open the file in an archive manager, and extract the individual parts. There is no obvious method to how classes are divided between COD file parts, and each part must be decompiled manually.

Code Security

Only the BlackBerry JVM and lowest-level firmware are written in native code (C/C++, ASM), which eliminates a large portion of the BlackBerry’s attack surface that may be vulnerable to buffer overflows and other memory corruption issues. This is proven by the fact that there are no publicly reported BlackBerry memory corruption vulnerabilities—an impressive track record for any device manufacturer.

To stop buffer overflows and control the behavior of BlackBerry Java applications, RIM disallows Java native invocation (JNI) and Java reflection. JNI allows Java code to bridge to native C/C++ code, and allowing its use would enable Java applications to access unintended functionality or corrupt memory. Java reflection can be used to circumvent the public/private access restrictions on Java classes, and its use could allow applications to invoke internal system methods. Disabling both of these Java features is standard for JME devices.

Application Packaging and Distribution

BlackBerry applications can be installed via desktop connection, BlackBerry browser, BlackBerry Desktop Manager, and BES. How applications are packaged depends on the installation method. Each installation method requires a code file (in the form of a COD or JAR) and a manifest (either ALX or JAD). The manifest contains information about the application, and the code file contains the actual application code itself.

More information about deploying applications and the various packaging methods is included in the How to Deploy and Distribute Applications Guide (found at

Over-The-Air (OTA) BlackBerry Browser Installation

Applications can be installed via an application distribution point directly using the BlackBerry browser. To do this, create a Java Application Description (JAD) file and place the file on your web server. The JAD file contains metadata about the application, including the vendor and application names as well as where to download the actual binary files from. When the user browses to the JAD file, they will see a screen similar to the one shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Downloading a BlackBerry application OTA

The application’s signature is verified and the application is then installed onto the BlackBerry. The signature contained within the COD or JAR file ensures application integrity and makes it safe to download the application over HTTP. Before installation, the user is presented with a dialog where they can edit security permissions and set the proper security policy for the application.

Interestingly, the BlackBerry does not execute the JAR files directly. Instead, the MDS transparently transcodes the JAR into a COD file while it is being downloaded. The MDS is careful to include all security information, and the data is integrity-protected by the MDS-to-BlackBerry encrypted tunnel. The MIDP specification allows this scenario explicitly.

BlackBerry Desktop Manager

Like most smartphone platforms, the BlackBerry has special software that can be used to manage it from the desktop. RIM’s version is the BlackBerry Desktop Manager (BDM), which includes modules for backing up and transferring data between devices and for installing packaged applications.

BDM requires an .alx XML manifest file in order to install applications. The ALX file describes the application, including vendor, dependencies, and which COD files actually make up the application. Any code signatures are not applied to ALX files because the signature is contained within the associated COD file. To generate ALX files by using the JDE or Eclipse plug-in, right-click on the application’s project and select Generate ALX File.

BlackBerry Application Web Loader

The BlackBerry Application Web Loader is a non-SiteLocked ActiveX control for installing applications from a web page to devices connected to the computer. This control has been one of the dark spots on RIM’s security record, with a stack-based overflow reported in February 2009 that could be used to compromise systems with the control installed. The advantage of the Application Web Loader is that users are not required to install BDM. For some people this is valuable enough; others may question the wisdom of having the web push applications to one’s phone.


SiteLock is a Microsoft technology that restricts the sites allowed to load a particular ActiveX control. Non-SiteLocked controls may be loaded by any website, including malicious ones.

To deploy applications using the Application Web Loader, create a JAD file and place the JAD and COD file on an accessible web server. Then create a web page that uses the Application Web Loader page. The BlackBerry must be attached to the computer via a USB connection.

BES Installation

BES administrators can manage applications, application updates, and policy to associated devices through the BES Applications menu. The ability to deploy updates and blacklist applications is a clear security advantage of BES. Carriers can do the same through BIS, but there has not yet been a major security outbreak necessitating such a response.

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