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Last updated: September 29, 2023


Making small changes to the Android Manifest or bytecode is often the quickest way to fix small annoyances that prevent you from testing or reverse engineering an app. On Android, two issues in particular happen regularly:

  1. You can't intercept HTTPS traffic with a proxy because the app employs SSL pinning.
  2. You can't attach a debugger to the app because the android:debuggable flag is not set to "true" in the Android Manifest.

In most cases, both issues can be fixed by making minor changes to the app (aka. patching) and then re-signing and repackaging it. Apps that run additional integrity checks beyond default Android code-signing are an exception. In those cases, you have to patch the additional checks as well.

The first step is unpacking and disassembling the APK with apktool:

apktool d target_apk.apk

Note: To save time, you may use the flag --no-src if you only want to unpack the APK but not disassemble the code. For example, when you only want to modify the Android Manifest and repack immediately.

Patching Example: Disabling Certificate Pinning

Certificate pinning is an issue for security testers who want to intercept HTTPS communication for legitimate reasons. Patching bytecode to deactivate SSL pinning can help with this. To demonstrate bypassing certificate pinning, we'll walk through an implementation in an example application.

Once you've unpacked and disassembled the APK, it's time to find the certificate pinning checks in the Smali source code. Searching the code for keywords such as "X509TrustManager" should point you in the right direction.

In our example, a search for "X509TrustManager" returns one class that implements a custom TrustManager. The derived class implements the methods checkClientTrusted, checkServerTrusted, and getAcceptedIssuers.

To bypass the pinning check, add the return-void opcode to the first line of each method. This opcode causes the checks to return immediately. With this modification, no certificate checks are performed, and the application accepts all certificates.

.method public checkServerTrusted([LJava/security/cert/X509Certificate;Ljava/lang/String;)V
  .locals 3
  .param p1, "chain"  # [Ljava/security/cert/X509Certificate;
  .param p2, "authType"   # Ljava/lang/String;

  return-void      # <-- OUR INSERTED OPCODE!
  .line 102
  iget-object v1, p0, Lasdf/t$a;->a:Ljava/util/ArrayList;

  invoke-virtual {v1}, Ljava/util/ArrayList;->iterator()Ljava/util/Iterator;

  move-result-object v1

  invoke-interface {v1}, Ljava/util/Iterator;->hasNext()Z

This modification will break the APK signature, so you'll also have to re-sign the altered APK archive after repackaging it.

Patching Example: Making an App Debuggable

Every debugger-enabled process runs an extra thread for handling JDWP protocol packets. This thread is started only for apps that have the android:debuggable="true" flag set in their manifest file's <application> element. This is the typical configuration of Android devices shipped to end users.

When reverse engineering apps, you'll often have access to the target app's release build only. Release builds aren't meant to be debugged, that's the purpose of debug builds. If the system property ro.debuggable is set to "0", Android disallows both JDWP and native debugging of release builds. Although this is easy to bypass, you're still likely to encounter limitations, such as a lack of line breakpoints. Nevertheless, even an imperfect debugger is still an invaluable tool, being able to inspect the runtime state of a program makes understanding the program a lot easier.

To convert a release build into a debuggable build, you need to modify a flag in the Android Manifest file (AndroidManifest.xml). Once you've unpacked the app (e.g. apktool d --no-src UnCrackable-Level1.apk) and decoded the Android Manifest, add android:debuggable="true" to it using a text editor:

<application android:allowBackup="true" android:debuggable="true" android:icon="@drawable/ic_launcher" android:label="@string/app_name" android:name="" android:theme="@style/AppTheme">

Even if we haven't altered the source code, this modification also breaks the APK signature, so you'll also have to re-sign the altered APK archive.

Patching React Native applications

If the React Native framework has been used for developing then the main application code is located in the file assets/ This file contains the JavaScript code. Most of the time, the JavaScript code in this file is minified. By using the tool JStillery a human readable version of the file can be retrieved, allowing code analysis. The CLI version of JStillery or the local server should be preferred instead of using the online version as otherwise source code is sent and disclosed to a 3rd party.

The following approach can be used in order to patch the JavaScript file:

  1. Unpack the APK archive using apktool tool.
  2. Copy the content of the file assets/ into a temporary file.
  3. Use JStillery to beautify and deobfuscate the content of the temporary file.
  4. Identify where the code should be patched in the temporary file and implement the changes.
  5. Put the patched code on a single line and copy it in the original assets/ file.
  6. Repack the APK archive using apktool tool and sign it before installing it on the target device/emulator.