Google Research

What Mobile Ads Know About Mobile Users

  • Daehyeok Kim
  • Sooel Son
  • Vitaly Shmatikov
NDSS 2016


We analyze the software stack of popular mobile advertising libraries on Android and investigate how they protect the users of advertising-supported apps from malicious advertising. We find that, by and large, Android advertising libraries properly separate the privileges of the ads from the host app by confining ads to dedicated browser instances that correctly apply the same origin policy.

We then demonstrate how malicious ads can infer sensitive information about users by accessing external storage, which is essential for media-rich ads in order to cache video and images. Even though the same origin policy prevents confined ads from reading other apps’ external-storage files, it does not prevent them from learning that a file with a particular name exists. We show how, depending on the app, the mere existence of a file can reveal sensitive information about the user. For example, if the user has a pharmacy price-comparison app installed on the device, the presence of external-storage files with certain names reveals which drugs the user has looked for.

We conclude with our recommendations for redesigning mobile advertising software to better protect users from malicious advertising.

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