Debug Detection

Debug detection refers to the process of detecting whether a mobile app is actively being debugged or not.

What Is Debug Detection?

Debug detection refers to the process of identifying whether a mobile app is executing in a debugging environment. Detecting whether an app is running in a debugger  can be useful for various reasons, such as preventing malicious users from gaining insight on how to exploit the app's code or gaining access to sensitive information , protecting theft of intellectual property,  and ensuring that the app is not tampered with during the development process.

How Can a Debugger Be Used To Attack a Mobile App?

Based on the capabilities mentioned above, a debugger can be a powerful tool for an attacker. The attacker can use a debugger to hack a mobile app by attaching the debugger to the app’s process and then using it to analyze the app's code, data, and memory during runtime. This allows the attacker to identify vulnerabilities in the mobile app's security mechanisms and exploit them to gain unauthorized access or perform malicious actions. 

Here are some common ways that a debugger can be used to attack a mobile app:

  • Code analysis. By using a debugger, an attacker can analyze the app's code and identify vulnerabilities such as buffer overflows, injection flaws, and logic errors. Once a vulnerability is identified, the attacker can use the debugger to modify the code and execute malicious code.
  • Data analysis. A hacker can use a debugger to analyze the app's data during runtime. This allows the hacker to identify sensitive information such as passwords, session tokens, and user data. Once the information is obtained, the hacker can use it to gain unauthorized access to the app or other systems.
  • Memory analysis. A debugger can also be used to analyze the app's memory during runtime. This allows the cybercriminal to identify the location of specific variables and data structures within the memory. Once the location is identified, the cybercriminal can modify the data or inject new data into the memory, leading to unauthorized access or other malicious actions.
  • Bypassing security mechanisms. A debugger can also be used to bypass security mechanisms such as code obfuscation and encryption. By using a debugger, an attacker can identify the location of the code and data that are encrypted or obfuscated and modify them to bypass the security mechanisms.
  • Information disclosure. A debugger can be used to intercept network traffic, allowing a hacker to view sensitive data such as usernames and passwords, API keys, or other confidential information.

How Can Debug Detection Be Implemented?

There are different techniques and methods to implement debug detection in mobile apps, depending on the mobile platform being used (e.g., Android or iOS). Here are some common methods for detecting that a debugger is attached to a mobile app. Keep in mind that any one method alone is not foolproof and some can be easily bypassed.

  • Checking process flags. Process flag detection, also known as PTrace detection, can be used to detect if a debugger is attached to a mobile app. This technique involves checking whether the PTrace flag is set for the app's process. The PTrace flag is a flag that can be set by a debugger to allow it to trace the app's execution and monitor its behavior. By checking this flag, a mobile app can detect whether a debugger is attached.
  • Checking for debug flags. Some platforms provide specific flags or properties that indicate whether an app is running in debug mode. For example, in Android, the BuildConfig.DEBUG flag can be used to determine if the app is in debug mode. On iOS, there is a flag that indicates whether an app is running in debug mode. The ‘isBeingDebugged’ property of the ‘NSProcessInfo’ class can be used to check if a debugger is attached. 
  • Breakpoint detection. A mobile app can set a breakpoint at a specific memory location and then check whether that breakpoint has been hit. If the breakpoint has been hit, it is likely that a debugger is attached. It is worth noting that breakpoint detection can be easily bypassed by cybercriminals who are knowledgeable about debugging techniques and therefore should not be relied upon as the only means of debug detection.
  • Timing-based detection. A program can check the amount of time it takes to execute a certain section of code. If the execution time is much longer than expected, it may be an indication that a debugger is attached.
  • Exception handling. Debuggers often interrupt the normal flow of an app's execution by catching and handling exceptions. This behavior can be used for debug detection by deliberately triggering an exception in a way that deviates from typical usage patterns. If the exception is caught and handled, it may indicate the presence of a debugger.
  • Inspecting package signatures. On Android, you can check the app's package signature and compare it against the production signature. If the signatures don't match, it may indicate that the app is running in a debug environment.
  • Analyzing runtime information. You can inspect runtime information, such as the presence of debuggers or debugger hooks, specific environment variables, or system properties that are indicative of a debugging environment.
  • Anti-debugging libraries. There are third-party libraries and frameworks available that provide more advanced debugging detection mechanisms. These libraries can help detect various debugging techniques and provide additional protection layers.

Blue Cedar Provides Debug Detection


Blue Cedar Enforce

Blue Cedar Enforce, a component of Blue Cedar Mobile App Security, provides debug detection. Being able to detect if a debugger is attached to a mobile app and prevent the mobile app from executing is one of many mobile app security features provided by Blue Cedar Mobile App Security.


Blue Cedar Enhance

Blue Cedar also provides an easy way to incorporate mobile app security, including debug detention, into a mobile app. That is via Blue Cedar Enhance, Blue Cedar’s no-code integration service that adds new functionality to mobile apps without requiring a single line of code to be written. Blue Cedar Enhance integrates mobile app security into iOS and Android mobile app binaries, regardless of the libraries and frameworks that underpin these app binaries. 

The Blue Cedar Platform

Blue Cedar Mobile App Security and Blue Cedar Enhance are delivered by the Blue Cedar Platform, a CI/CD friendly SaaS solution that also provides deployment services, such as app import and code signing, to streamline delivery of secured mobile apps.