Don’t Call Us We’ll Call You: McAfee ATR Finds Vulnerability in Agora Video SDK

The McAfee Advanced Threat Research (ATR) team is committed to uncovering security issues in both software and hardware to help developers provide safer products for businesses and consumers. We recently investigated and published several findings on a personal robot called “temi”, which can be read about in detail here. A byproduct of our robotic research was a deeper dive into a video calling software development kit (SDK) created by Agora’s SDKs are used for voice and video communication in applications across multiple platforms. Several of the most popular mobile applications utilizing the vulnerable SDK included social apps such as eHarmony, Plenty of Fish, MeetMe and Skout, and healthcare apps such as Talkspace, Practo and Dr. First’s Backline. In early 2020, our research into the Agora Video SDK led to the discovery of sensitive information sent unencrypted over the network. This flaw, CVE-2020-25605, may have allowed an attacker to spy on ongoing private video and audio calls. At the time of writing, McAfee is unaware of any instances of this vulnerability being exploited in the wild. We reported this research to on April 20, 2020 and the company, as of December 17th, 2020 released a new SDK, version 3.2.1, which mitigated the vulnerability and eliminated the corresponding threat to users.

Encryption has increasingly become the new standard for communication; often even in cases where data privacy is not explicitly sensitive. For example, all modern browsers have begun to migrate to newer standards (HTTP/2) which enforce encryption by default, a complete change from just a few years ago where a significant amount of browsing traffic was sent in clear text and could be viewed by any interested party. While the need to protect truly sensitive information such as financial data, health records, and other personally identifiable information (PII) has long been standardized, consumers are increasingly expecting privacy and encryption for all web traffic and applications. Furthermore, when encryption is an option provided by a vendor, it must be easy for developers to implement, adequately protect all session information including setup and teardown, and still meet the developers’ many use cases. These core concepts are what led us to the findings discussed in this blog.

To boldly go where no one has gone before

As part of our analysis of the temi ecosystem, the team reviewed the Android application that pairs with the temi robot. During this analysis, a hardcoded key was discovered in the app.

This raised the question: What is this key and what is it used for? Thanks to the detailed logging provided by the developers, we had a place to start,

What is Agora?

According to the website – “Agora provides the SDKs and building blocks to enable a wide range of real-time engagement possibilities” In the context of our initial robot project, it simply provides the technology required to make audio and video calls. In a broader context, Agora is used for a variety of applications including social, retail, gaming and education, among others.

Agora allows anyone to create an account and download its SDKs for testing from its website, which also provides extensive documentation. Its GitHub repositories also provide detailed sample projects on how to use the product. This is amazing for developers, but also very useful to security researchers and hackers. Using the logging comments from the above code we can look at the documentation to understand what an App ID is and what it is used for.

The last two sentences of this documentation really grabbed our attention. We had found a key which is hardcoded into an Android application that “anyone can use on any Agora SDK” and is “prudent to safeguard”.

Agora provides several different SDKs with different functionality. Since we encountered Agora through use of the video SDK, we decided to focus on only this SDK for the rest of this research. Simulating the mindset of an attacker, we began to investigate what this App ID or key could be used for. Furthermore, in the context of the video SDK, the question evolved into whether an attacker could interact with this video and audio traffic.

“They’ve done studies, you know. 60% of the time, encrypting works every time.”

Since Agora provides sample projects and allows for free developer accounts, the best way to understand what potential attack vectors exists is to use these tools. Examining the GitHub example projects and the following associated documentation, we can learn exactly what is needed and how a normal user is connected to a video call.

Here we see in the example code the App ID being used to create a new “RtcEngine” object. As can be seen in the documentation, creating an RtcEngine is the foundation and first step needed to create any video call.

If we continue to examine the example code and look at the documentation’s steps for connecting to a call, we come to a function named “joinChannel”.

This function is responsible for connecting an end user to a call. In the example code, there are four parameters, three of which are hardcoded and one of which can be set to null. Without doing too much more digging, it appears that while Agora lists the App ID as important, it is not the only component needed to join a video call. An attacker would also require the values passed to the joinChannel API in order to join a call. If we assume that these values are only hardcoded for the purpose of a demo application, how would an attacker obtain the other necessary values? Code is an awesome resource, but when it comes to a network conversation the truth is in the packets. By running this example code and capturing traffic with Wireshark, we can further our understanding of how this system works.

When looking at the traffic, what immediately stands out is the values passed to joinChannel in the example code above. They are sent in plaintext across the network, in addition to the App ID needed to initiate the RtcEngine. Considering this is an example app, it is important to understand the difference between a test scenario and a production scenario. As noted in the code in Figure 5, the “token” parameter is being set to null. What is a token in this context, and would that affect the security of these parameters? We can use the Agora documentation to understand that a token is designed to be randomly generated and provide more security for a session.

With tokens being an option, it is important we see what the traffic looks like in a scenario where the token parameter is not null. The use of a token is hopefully what we find in production or at least is what is recommended in production by Agora.

Running the example application again, this time using a token and capturing traffic, we can discover that the token is also a non-issue for an attacker.

The token is sent in plaintext just like the other parameters! You may have noticed this capture does not show the App ID; in this case the App ID is still sent in plaintext, in a different packet.

The Spy Who Loved Me

Information being sent in plaintext across the network to initiate a video call is one thing, but can this actually be used by an attacker to spy on a user? Will the call support a third party? Will the user be notified of a new connection? In order to answer these questions, we can use the example applications provided by Agora to run some tests. The diagram below shows the scenario we are going to try and create for testing.

The first step for an attacker sitting on the network is to be able to identify the proper network traffic containing the sensitive information. With this information from the network packets, they can then attempt to join the call that is in progress. Using a Python framework called Scapy, we built a network layer in less than 50 lines of code to help easily identify the traffic the attacker cares about. This was done by reviewing the video call traffic and reverse engineering the protocol. Like a lot of reversing, this is done by using context clues and a lot of “guess and check”. Strings help us identify the use for certain fields and provide clues to what the fields around them might be. In some cases, fields are still unknown; however, this is normal. An attacker or researcher only needs to decipher enough of a packet to make an attack possible.

The above code identifies, parses, and displays in human readable form, only the important information in the three main packet types discovered in the Agora traffic. From here we can automate the scenario outlined in Figure 10 using Python with a few modifications to the example apps. It totally works! The demo video below shows an attacker sniffing network traffic to gather the call information and then launching their own Agora video application to join the call, completely unnoticed by normal users.

Besides using a token, were there any other security measures available to developers that might have mitigated the impact of this vulnerability? Per Agora’s documentation, the developer has the option to encrypt a video call. We also tested this, and the App ID, Channel Name, and Token are still sent in plaintext when the call is encrypted. An attacker can still get these values; however, they cannot view the video or hear the audio of the call. Despite this, the attacker can still utilize the App ID to host their own calls at the cost of the app developer. We will discuss in the next section why, even though encryption is available, it is not widely adopted, making this mitigation largely impractical.

You talkin’ to me? Are you talkin’ to me?

This research started with the discovery of an App ID hardcoded into “temi”, the personal robot we were researching. Agora documents clearly on its website that this App ID should be “kept safe”, which we discovered as a vulnerability while researching temi. However, further examination shows that even if temi had kept this value safe, it is sent in cleartext over the network along with all the other values needed to join the call. So how does this impact other consumers of the Agora SDK outside of temi?

Agora’s website claims – “Agora’s interactive voice, video, and messaging SDKs are embedded into mobile, web and desktop applications across more than 1.7 billion devices globally.” To ensure our comparisons would be reasonable, we looked only at other Android applications which used the video SDK. We also focused on apps with a very large install base.

To give a quick cross-section of apps on Google Play that utilize Agora, let’s focus on MeetMe, Skout, Nimo TV, and, of course, temi. Google Play reports the number of installs at 50 million+ each for MeetMe and Skout, 10 million+ for Nimo TV and 1000+ for temi. By examining the applications’ decompiled code, we can easily determine all four of these applications have hardcoded App IDs and do not enable encryption. We see very similar code as below in all the applications:

The most important line here is the call to setEncryptionSecret which is being passed the “null” parameter. We can reference the Agora documentation to understand more about this call.

Even though the encryption functions are being called, the application developers are actually disabling the encryption based on this documentation. A developer paying close attention might ask if this is the only place the API is being called. Could it be set elsewhere? The team searched the decompiled code for all the applications reviewed and was unable to find any other instance of the API call, leading us to believe this is the only call being made. With this in mind, the cleartext traffic has a greater impact that goes well beyond a personal robot application to millions – potentially billions – of users. Without encryption enabled and the setup information passed in cleartext, an attacker can spy on a very large range of users.

Although Agora should not have been sending this sensitive information unencrypted, if it offers an encrypted traffic option, why is it not being used? This would at least protect the video and audio of the call, even though an attacker is able to join. While it is impossible to be certain, one reason might be because the Agora encryption options require a pre-shared key, which can be seen in its example applications posted on GitHub. The Agora SDK itself did not provide any secure way to generate or communicate the pre-shared key needed for the phone call, and therefore this was left up to the developers. Many calling models used in applications want to give the user the ability to call anyone without prior contact. This is difficult to implement into a video SDK post-release since a built-in mechanism for key sharing was not included. It is also worth noting that, generally, the speed and quality of a video call is harder to maintain while using encryption. These may be a few of the reasons why these application developers have chosen to not use the encryption for the video and audio. Now that the SDK properly and transparently handles encryption of call setup, developers have the opportunity to leverage a more secure method of communication for traffic. Additionally, developers still have the option to add full encryption to further protect video and audio streams.

Agora has published a list of best practices for all its developers and partners here, which does include use of encryption when possible. We generally recommend following vendors’ security best practices as they are designed to apply to the product or service directly.  In this case, the vulnerability would still exist; however, its effectiveness would be extremely limited if the published best practices were followed. Although we have found Agora’s recommendations were largely not being adopted, Agora has been actively communicating with customers throughout the vulnerability disclosure process to ensure its recommended processes and procedures are widely implemented.

Yo, Adrian, we did it. We did it.

Privacy is always a top concern for consumers, but also remains an enticing threat vector for attackers. If we look at the two biggest apps we investigated (MeetMe and Skout), both are rated for mature audiences (17+) to “meet new people” and both advertise over 100 million users. MeetMe also mentions “flirting” on the Google Play store and its website has testimonies about people meeting the “love of their life”. Although they are not explicitly advertised as dating apps, it would be reasonable to draw the conclusion that it is at least one of their functions. In the world of online dating, a breach of security or the ability to spy on calls could lead to blackmail or harassment by an attacker. Other Agora developer applications with smaller customer bases, such as the temi robot, are used in numerous industries such as hospitals, where the ability to spy on conversations could lead to the leak of sensitive medical information.

One goal of the McAfee Advanced Threat Research team is to identify and illuminate a broad spectrum of threats in today’s complex and constantly evolving landscape. As per McAfee’s responsible disclosure policy, McAfee ATR informed Agora as soon as the vulnerability was confirmed to be exploitable. Agora was very receptive and responsive to receiving this information and further advanced its current security capabilities by providing developers with an SDK option (version 3.2.1) to encrypt the initial call setup information, mitigating this vulnerability.  We have tested this new SDK and can confirm it fully mitigates CVE-2020-25605. At the time of writing, McAfee is unaware of any instances of this vulnerability being exploited in the wild, which demonstrates another powerful success story of mitigating an issue which may have affected millions of users before it is used for malicious purposes. Our partnership with Agora resulted in the release of a more secure SDK which has empowered developers across multiple companies to produce more secure video calling applications. We strongly recommend any development team which uses the Agora SDK to upgrade to the latest version, follow Agora’s outlined best practices, and implement full encryption wherever possible.

Vulnerability Details

CVE: CVE-2020-25605
CVSSv3 Rating: 7.5/6.7
CVE Description: Cleartext transmission of sensitive information in Agora Video SDK prior to 3.1 allows a remote attacker to obtain access to audio and video of any ongoing Agora video call through observation of cleartext network traffic.

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