Mobile (Android) Ransomware

Published on: December 08, 2016

TL;DR: I’ve started this project while advising a Master student who was interested in machine learning. As I’ve been using machine learning since around 2006, I was immediately hooked by the idea of using it to determine whether an Android app was trying to lock the target device as part of a ransomware scheme.

There are three core characteristics that are unavoidable for any ransomware scheme, which can be all boiled down to the “business” need of “being noisy” and evident. It’s true right? For the first time we see malware that is no longer trying to hide. Instead, it needs to loudly announce its presence to the victim, in order for the business model to work. If the victim is not aware of what is happening and is not effectively guided to the payment screen, the infection is useless.

Therefore, any ransomware needs to:

  1. encrypt or lock access to important data,
  2. announce its presence to the user and,
  3. guide them through the payment options.

These three features have to be implemented by a ransomware sample, and thus have to be visible somehow in the code. Around this key observation, together with the evil genius Nicolò Andronio (the aforementioned Master student) and my partner-in-crime Stefano, we devised and open-sourced HelDroid, a fully automatic APK analyzer that, using static flow analysis, detects whether an app contains evidence of ransomware behavior.

Earlier this summer I’ve joined Trend Micro’ research team, and immediately got my hands onto MARS, its Mobile App Reputation Service, which allowed me to build a good retrospective view of how Android ransomware have evolved.

This work granted me a speaking slot at the Black Hat Europe Briefings, where I had the opportunity to present the results to a room packed with attendees. Was a great experience!

If you’re curious, you can read a summarized version of the research in these two blog posts:

Or read the full slides and papers linked below.


Pocket-sized Badness: Why Ransomware Comes as a Plot Twist in the Cat-Mouse Game
Federico Maggi and Stefano Zanero.. Black Hat Briefings Europe (Peer-reviewed Talk), London, UK. (November 3, 2016) - Link: [PDF]

GreatEatlon: Fast, Static Detection of Mobile Ransomware
Chenghyu Zheng, Nicola Della Rocca, Niccolò Andronio, Stefano Zanero, and Maggi Federico.
In Guangzhou, People’s Republic of China, 617–636. DOI: (October 10, 2016) [PDF]

HelDroid: Dissecting and Detecting Mobile Ransomware
Niccolò Andronio, Stefano Zanero, and Federico Maggi.
In International Symposium on Research in Attacks, Intrusions and Defenses (RAID). Lecture notes in computer science. Kyoto, Japan, 382–404. DOI: (October 2015) [PDF]

#android #mobile #ransomware #bheu16 #trendmicro