# Friday, 15 August 2014

Android NFC service and "thin client": one problem, and one hack

Lately (in the last year or so), Android work intensified at my company. So, I finally took the time to study it in depth and I discovered how MUCH Android differs from what I was expecting. It really starts to make sense when you dig under the cover. And you start to discover how much better your apps behave when you are using the SDK the way it should be used (and you also start to pick up defects in other apps and say "Ha! You did that! Gotcha!).
But this is the topic for another post... :)

Today I want to concentrate on an issue I was experiencing using the NFC framework in Android to read our contactless cards.
Using the NFC framework as a general purpose card reader is a bit on the "stretchy" side: the framework, after all, is mainly there to read Ndef tags, which have a precise structure. Fortunately, Android allows you do go deeper, and interact directly with a card using a "transceive" method.

In this way, you can send commands and data to the card (in the form of a byte[]) and receive a response from the card (again, in the form of a byte[]).
So far, so good: this means that we can read our Mifare Desfire cards, using the Desfire authentication and our keys.
I implemented the commands to authenticate a card, select an application (i.e. a protected directory inside the card memory) and read the data.

All is working well, but.. you have to store your key on the phone, and the storage on your phone is not secure.
In theory, every application has a local storage that cannot be read by other applications. In practice, you just have to have root access to your phone (which is mighty easy with Android handsets) and you are done.

This is not a particular problem for some scenarios (e.g. if you provide an app that uses the user differentiated key, so that the user can read his own card), but it is a problem when you need to read multiple cards, and therefore to use the master key.

Suppose you are a third-party company. You are my friend, and you want to provide a discount for my subscribers (people that have my smart-card).
How can you check that the card is real, and that the card is not expired? Easy, you authenticate with the card and read its content: the expiration date is written right there.
But I do not trust you enough to let you have my read keys!

Maybe you even want to top up my card with "reward points": if my users buy something from you, they will have discount on my services. Super cool!
But I will not let you have my write keys.. that's out of question!

Sure, you can read just the UID, and use that to look up user info on my web-service. And use the same service to POST reward points. But my network is sparsely connected, and it might take long before a card is used on one of my terminals and I can update them.
And we have seen that a UID can be faked..

The answer is "thin-client". You use your NFC phone as an antenna, nothing more. What you read from the card is sent as a (hex-encoded) string to a web service. The web service contains the logic and data to interpret the request and prepare the right response. The response is sent back to the phone, and then transmitted to the card.

You can authenticate with the card, but your keys are safely stored away on your server and they never transit on the the phone!
The phone does not even see the personalized key, so the user is safe against cloning.
I build a prototype, and it worked great on our WiFi network.
They I tried to use it on a cellular network and it failed (almost) regularly. Why?

My suspect was that after a (very short) while the card was reset.
The answer I was getting back from the card was something like "operation not supported in this state". It was like somehow the card forgot that we were in the middle of an authentication challenge-response before the protocol was over.
I decided to investigate, to see if my suspicion was confirmed.
Fortunately, Android is OSS and source code is available! So I dug into the Android source code, looking for clues in the NFC implementation.

Android implements NFC using a mix of libraries and processes; most of the NFC stack is native, and managed by the OS. Then, there is a Service (provided by the OS) that handle communication with the native NFC stack. And some client-side classes you can use inside your application, which will communicate with the Service, hiding it from you.
I started to dig into the source by following a "tranceive" call.

On the application side, you receive an Intent when a card is presented to the reader. Inside the intent payload there is a class derived from BasicTagTechnology; in our case, we use a ISO-A compatible card, so we get a IsoDep object.

The most important method of this class is, as I mentioned, tranceive:


The method inside is just a thin wrapper for remote invocation to a service, which is the NfcService or NfcApplication (the name has changed between Android releases:

Tag.getTagService().transceive(mTag.getServiceHandle(), data, raw)

class Tag ...

    public INfcTag getTagService() {
        return mTagService;
INfcTag is an aidl interface, which is used to forward data and commands to NfcService.
We can follow the transceive implementation inside NfcService:

public TransceiveResult transceive(int nativeHandle, byte[] data, boolean raw)   
 tag = (TagEndpoint) findObject(nativeHandle);
 response = tag.transceive(data, raw, targetLost);
 Object findObject(int key) {
        synchronized (this) {
            Object device = mObjectMap.get(key);
            if (device == null) {
                Log.w(TAG, "Handle not found");
            return device;

So, there is another "Tag" class inside the service; all known (in range) tags are held by the NfcService class in a map.
This "Tag" is named NativeNfcTag:
public class NativeNfcTag implements TagEndpoint
   private native byte[] doTransceive(byte[] data);
   public synchronized byte[] transceive(byte[] data) {
      if (mWatchdog != null) {
      return doTransceive(data);

The implementation of doTransceive is native, and it varies from a card tech to another.
We have found the end of the flow. Have we also found any clue about the card reset?

The answer is there, inside NativeNfcTag. You should have notice the "mWatchdog.reset()" statemente inside doConnect. What is mWatchdog?

private PresenceCheckWatchdog mWatchdog;
    class PresenceCheckWatchdog extends Thread {

        private int watchdogTimeout = 125;


        public synchronized void run() {
            if (DBG) Log.d(TAG, "Starting background presence check");
            while (isPresent && !isStopped) {
                try {
                    if (!isPaused) {
                        doCheck = true;
                    if (doCheck) {
                        isPresent = doPresenceCheck();
                    } else {
                        // 1) We are paused, waiting for unpause
                        // 2) We just unpaused, do pres check in next iteration
                        //       (after watchdogTimeout ms sleep)
                        // 3) We just set the timeout, wait for this timeout
                        //       to expire once first.
                        // 4) We just stopped, exit loop anyway
                } catch (InterruptedException e) {
                    // Activity detected, loop
            // Restart the polling loop

            Log.d(TAG, "Tag lost, restarting polling loop");
            if (DBG) Log.d(TAG, "Stopping background presence check");

The "watchdog" is a thread that at short intervals (125ms) checks if the card is still in range, using the "doPresenceCheck()" function. Which is native, and card-dependent.

The function could be therefore an innocuous instruction (a no-op), or a new select that will reset the card to its not-authenticated state.
Guess which one is for Desfire cards?

So, if the watchdog is not reset periodically by transmitting something to the card, a presence check will be triggered and the card will be selected again, resetting the authentication process. While you are still waiting for the cellular network to answer (125ms is a short time on 3G).

I started to think on ways to work around it, from suspending the thread (inside another process - the service - in Android? Root necessary), to set the timeout (by invoking a method on NativeNfcTag using reflection... again, another process was out of my reach) to substitute the code for "doPresenceCheck()" (which you can do with things like Xposed, but.. that will require Root access too).

You just cannot access anything inside another process in Android, if you don't have root access. Which is usually a very good thing indeed, but it getting in our way in this case.
But what about our process? Sure, we can do almost anything inside it... but how can it do any good?

Well, there is a function inside NativeNfcCard which we can use. This function is "exposed" from "Tag" (the non-public class used at "client" side, see above), but not by BasicTagTechnology.
So we cannot call it directly (like transceive), but from the Tag class onwards it follows the same flow as transceive. This function is "connect":

class Tag {
   public int connect(int nativeHandle, int technology)
   public synchronized int connectWithStatus(int technology)

If we examine the source code of "doConnect" on the other side (its implementation inside NativeNfcCard) we can see that this function will reset the watchdog too (like transceive). Moreover, we can turn "connect" into a no-op:
private native boolean doConnect(int handle);
    public synchronized boolean connect(int technology) {
        if (mWatchdog != null) {
        boolean isSuccess = false;
        for (int i = 0; i < mTechList.length; i++) {
            if (mTechList[i] == technology) {
                // Get the handle and connect, if not already connected
                if (mConnectedTechnology != i) {
                } else {
                    isSuccess = true; // Already connect to this tech
If the technology we specify is the same one we are already using, or if it is a non-existing technology, the function will do nothing.

We can just grab the Tag class inside our code, call connect on our side (using reflection, as it is not exposed by the API), and wait for it to forward the command to the service, resetting the watchdog. Do this regularly, and we can "buy" as much time as we want to complete our authentication protocol!

This is obviously a hack. But I tested it with every version of Android we support (2.3.6, 3.x, 4.x up to 4.4.3) and it just works. It uses knowledge of an internal mechanism which is subject to change even at the next internal revision, but it seems that the code I examined has been stable for a while. And maybe, by the time it changes, they will fix the main issue (use a select function to control presence of a card) as well!

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