The Android version of DJI Go 4—an app that lets users control drones—has until recently been covertly collecting sensitive user data and can download and execute code of the developers’ choice, researchers said in two reports that question the security and trustworthiness of a program with more than 1 million Google Play downloads.
The app is used to control and collect near real-time video and flight data from drones made by China-based DJI, the world’s biggest maker of commercial drones. The Play Store shows that it has more than 1 million downloads, but because of the way Google discloses numbers, the true number could be as high as 5 million. The app has a rating of three-and-a-half stars out of a possible total of five from more than 52,000 users.
Wide array of sensitive user data
Two weeks ago, security firm Synactive reverse-engineered the app. On Thursday, fellow security firm Grimm published the results of its own independent analysis. At a minimum, both found that the app skirted Google terms and that, until recently, the app covertly collected a wide array of sensitive user data and sent it to servers located in mainland China. A worst-case scenario is that developers are abusing hard-to-identify features to spy on users.
According to the reports, the suspicious behaviors include:
- The ability to download and install any application of the developers’ choice through either a self-update feature or a dedicated installer in a software development kit provided by China-based social media platform Weibo. Both features could download code outside of Play, in violation of Google’s terms.
- A recently removed component that collected a wealth of phone data including IMEI, IMSI, carrier name, SIM serial Number, SD card information, OS language, kernel version, screen size and brightness, wireless network name, address and MAC, and Bluetooth addresses. These details and more were sent to MobTech, maker of a software developer kit used until the most recent release of the app.
- Automatic restarts whenever a user swiped the app to close it. The restarts cause the app to run in the background and continue to make network requests.
- Advanced obfuscation techniques that make third-party analysis of the app time-consuming.
This month’s reports come three years after the US Army banned the use of DJI drones for reasons that remain classified. In January, the Interior Department grounded drones from DJI and other Chinese manufacturers out of concerns data could be sent back to the mainland.
DJI officials said the researchers found “hypothetical vulnerabilities” and that neither report provided any evidence that they were ever exploited.
“The app update function described in these reports serves the very important safety goal of mitigating the use of hacked apps that seek to override our geofencing or altitude limitation features,” they wrote in a statement. Geofencing is a virtual barrier that the Federal Aviation Administration or other authorities bar drones from crossing. Drones use GPS, Bluetooth, and other technologies to enforce the restrictions.
A Google spokesman said the company is looking into the reports. The researchers said the iOS version of the app contained no obfuscation or update mechanisms.
Obfuscated, acquisitive, and always on
In several respects, the researchers said, DJI Go 4 for Android mimicked the behavior of botnets and malware. Both the self-update and auto-install components, for instance, call a developer-designated server and await commands to download and install code or apps. The obfuscation techniques closely resembled those used by malware to prevent researchers from discovering its true purpose. Other similarities were an always-on status and the collection of sensitive data that wasn’t relevant or necessary for the stated purpose of flying drones.
Making the behavior more concerning is the breadth of permissions required to use the app, which include access to contacts, microphone, camera, location, storage, and the ability to change network connectivity. Such sprawling permissions meant that the servers of DJI or Weibo, both located in a country known for its government-sponsored espionage hacking, had almost full control over users’ devices, the researchers said.
Both research teams said they saw no evidence the app installer was ever actually used, but they did see the automatic update mechanism trigger and download a new version from the DJI server and install it. The download URLs for both features are dynamically generated, meaning they are provided by a remote server and can be changed at any time.
The researchers from both firms conducted experiments that showed how both mechanisms could be used to install arbitrary apps. While the programs were delivered automatically, the researchers still had to click their approval before the programs could be installed.
Both research reports stopped short of saying the app actually targeted individuals, and both noted that the collection of IMSIs and other data had ended with the release of current version 4.3.36. The teams, however, didn’t rule out the possibility of nefarious uses. Grimm researchers wrote:
In the best case scenario, these features are only used to install legitimate versions of applications that may be of interest to the user, such as suggesting additional DJI or Weibo applications. In this case, the much more common technique is to display the additional application in the Google Play Store app by linking to it from within your application. Then, if the user chooses to, they can install the application directly from the Google Play Store. Similarly, the self-updating components may only be used to provide users with the most up-to-date version of the application. However, this can be more easily accomplished through the Google Play Store.
In the worst case, these features can be used to target specific users with malicious updates or applications that could be used to exploit the user’s phone. Given the amount of user’s information retrieved from their device, DJI or Weibo would easily be able to identify specific targets of interest. The next step in exploiting these targets would be to suggest a new application (via the Weibo SDK) or update the DJI application with a customized version built specifically to exploit their device. Once their device has been exploited, it could be used to gather additional information from the phone, track the user via the phone’s various sensors, or be used as a springboard to attack other devices on the phone’s WiFi network. This targeting system would allow an attacker to be much stealthier with their exploitation, rather than much noisier techniques, such as exploiting all devices visiting a website.
DJI officials have published an exhaustive and vigorous response that said that all the features and components detailed in the reports either served legitimate purposes or were unilaterally removed and weren’t used maliciously.
“We design our systems so DJI customers have full control over how or whether to share their photos, videos and flight logs, and we support the creation of industry standards for drone data security that will provide protection and confidence for all drone users,” the statement said. It provided the following point-by-point discussion:
- When our systems detect that a DJI app is not the official version – for example, if it has been modified to remove critical flight safety features like geofencing or altitude restrictions – we notify the user and require them to download the most recent official version of the app from our website. In future versions, users will also be able to download the official version from Google Play if it is available in their country. If users do not consent to doing so, their unauthorized (hacked) version of the app will be disabled for safety reasons.
- Unauthorized modifications to DJI control apps have raised concerns in the past, and this technique is designed to help ensure that our comprehensive airspace safety measures are applied consistently.
- Because our recreational customers often want to share their photos and videos with friends and family on social media, DJI integrates our consumer apps with the leading social media sites via their native SDKs. We must direct questions about the security of these SDKs to their respective social media services. However, please note that the SDK is only used when our users proactively turn it on.
- DJI GO 4 is not able to restart itself without input from the user, and we are investigating why these researchers claim it did so. We have not been able to replicate this behavior in our tests so far.
- The hypothetical vulnerabilities outlined in these reports are best characterized as potential bugs, which we have proactively tried to identify through our Bug Bounty Program, where security researchers responsibly disclose security issues they discover in exchange for payments of up to $30,000. Since all DJI flight control apps are designed to work in any country, we have been able to improve our software thanks to contributions from researchers all over the world, as seen on this list.
- The MobTech and Bugly components identified in these reports were previously removed from DJI flight control apps after earlier researchers identified potential security flaws in them. Again, there is no evidence they were ever exploited, and they were not used in DJI’s flight control systems for government and professional customers.
- The DJI GO4 app is primarily used to control our recreational drone products. DJI’s drone products designed for government agencies do not transmit data to DJI and are compatible only with a non-commercially available version of the DJI Pilot app. The software for these drones is only updated via an offline process, meaning this report is irrelevant to drones intended for sensitive government use. A recent security report from Booz Allen Hamilton audited these systems and found no evidence that the data or information collected by these drones is being transmitted to DJI, China, or any other unexpected party.
- This is only the latest independent validation of the security of DJI products following reviews by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. cybersecurity firm Kivu Consulting, the U.S. Department of Interior and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
- DJI has long called for the creation of industry standards for drone data security, a process which we hope will continue to provide appropriate protections for drone users with security concerns. If this type of feature, intended to assure safety, is a concern, it should be addressed in objective standards that can be specified by customers. DJI is committed to protecting drone user data, which is why we design our systems so drone users have control of whether they share any data with us. We also are committed to safety, trying to contribute technology solutions to keep the airspace safe.
Don’t forget the Android app mess
The research and DJI’s response underscore the disarray of Google’s current app procurement system. Ineffective vetting, the lack of permission granularity in older versions of Android, and the openness of the operating system make it easy to publish malicious apps in the Play Store. Those same things also make it easy to mistake legitimate functions for malicious ones.
People who have DJI Go 4 for Android installed may want to remove it at least until Google announces the results of its investigation (the reported automatic restart behavior means it’s not sufficient to simply curtail use of the app for the time being). Ultimately, users of the app find themselves in a similar position as that of TikTok, which has also aroused suspicions, both because of some behavior considered sketchy by some and because of its ownership by China-based ByteDance.
There’s little doubt that plenty of Android apps with no ties to China commit similar or worse infractions than those attributed to DJI Go 4 and TikTok. People who want to err on the side of security should steer clear of a large majority of them.