Sniffing on an Android phone with Wireshark

In my review of the iHealth glucometer I pointed out that I did indeed check if the app talked with the remote service over TLS or not. This was important because if it didn’t, it meant it was sending medical information over plaintext. There are a few other things that can go wrong, they can for instance not validate the certificate provided over TLS, effectively allowing MITM attacks to succeed, but that’s a different story altogether, so I won’t go there for now.

What I wanted to write about is some notes about my experience, if nothing else because it took me a while to get all the fragments ready, and I could not find a single entry anywhere that would explain what the error message I was receiving was about.

First of all, this is about the Wireshark tool, and Android phones, but at the end of the day you’ll find something that would work almost universally with a bunch of caveats. So make sure you get your Wireshark installed, and make sure you never run it as root for your own safety.

Rick suggested to look into the androiddump tool that comes with Wireshark; on Gentoo that requires enabling the right USE flag. This uses the extcap interface to “fetch” the packets to display from a remote source. I like this idea among other things because it splits the displaying/parsing from the capturing. As I’ll show later, this is not the only useful tool using the interface.

There are multiple interfaces that androiddump can capture from; that does include the logcat output, that makes it very useful when you’re debugging an application in realtime, but what I cared about was sniffing the packets from the interfaces on the device itself. This kept failing with the following error:

Error by extcap pipe: ERROR: Broken socket connection.

And no further debugging information available. Googling for a good half hour didn’t bring me anywhere, I even started strace‘ing the process (to the point that Wireshark crashed in a few situations!) until I finally managed to figure out the right -incantation- invokation of the androiddump tool… that had no more information even in verbose mode, but at least it told me what it was trying to do.

The explanation is kind of simple: this set of interfaces is effetively just a matrioska of interfaces. Wireshark calls into extcap, that calls into androiddump, that calls into adb, that calls into tcpdump on the device.

And here is the problem: my device (a Sony Xperia XA from 3 Ireland) has indeed a tcpdump command, but the only thing it does is returning 1 as return value, and that’s it. No error message and not even a help output to figure out if you need to enable somethihng. I have not dug into the phone much more because I was already kind of tired of having to figure out pieces of the puzzle that are not obvious at all, so I looked for alternative approaches.

Depending on the working system you use to set the capture up, you may be able to set up your computer to be an access point, and connect the phone to it. But this is not easy particularly on a laptop with already-oversubscribed USB ports. So I had to look for alternatives.

On the bright side, my router is currently running OpenWRT (with all the warts it has). Which means I have som leeway on the network access already. Googling around would suggest setting up a tee: tell iptables to forward a copy of every single packet coming from or to the phone to another mac address. This is relativel expensive, and no reliable over WiFi networks anyway, beside increasing congestion on an already busy network.

I opted instead to use another tool that is available in extcap: ssh-based packet captures. In Gentoo these require the sshdump and libssh USE flags enabled. With this interface, Wireshark effectively opens a session via SSH to the router, and runs tcpdump on it. It can also use dumpcap or tshark, which are Wireshark-specific tools, and would be significantly more performant, but there is no build for them on OpenWRT so that does not help either.

While this actually increases the amount of traffic over WiFi compared to the tee option, it does so over a reliable channel, and it allows you to apply capture filters, as well as start and stop capture as needed. I ended up going for ths option, and the good thing with this is that if you know the hardware addresses of your devices, you can now very easily sniff any of the connected clients just by filtering on that particular address, which opens for interesting discoveries. But that’s for another day.

One thought on “Sniffing on an Android phone with Wireshark

  1. If you install ntopng on your gateway device (at least packaged for pfSense; don’t know about OpenWRT) you can at get statistic about where all your different devices connect to, including IP addresses, ports, and some general inspection including whether the traffic is encrypted or not. Not as good as full manual traffic inspection, but such a setup will help you quickly identify which devices send unencrypted traffic and is where it’s going.


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