Monday, May 25, 2009

Snooping on iPhone Applications

Most iPhone applications communicate with a server to perform their functions. This post is a step-by-step guide for snooping on the communications between the iPhone application and its server. The instructions can come in handy for debugging your own application, or if you're curious how other applications communicate with their servers.

My method uses Wireshark's WiFi RadioTap promiscuous mode to capture all the radio traffic, and find the iPhone's traffic. This article starts by laying out the necessary "ingredients", and guides you through setting up your iPhone and your Mac. Snooping the traffic is demonstrated by snooping on Apple's Stocks application. The post wraps up by describing my motivation for snooping on iPhone apps.

This post is tailored to my home environment, which is described below. Most differences between that environment and yours can be compensated by a bit of creativity. Here's what you need:
  1. iPhone or iPod Touch. As long as it can run the application and connect to WiFi, it works.
  2. Open WiFi network. Most schools and work places have open guest networks, which work for this purpose. At home, I disable the security on my router/AP for the duration of my snooping, and re-enable it later on.
  3. Mac computer with OSX Leopard. It may work on Tiger, I haven't tried. It may work on hackintoshes, but I haven't tried that either. The software I'm using also has Windows/Linux ports, which I haven't tried.
iPhone / iPod Touch Setup
The iPhone can communicate using the cellular network, in addition to the WiFi. We want to make sure that doesn't happen. The fastest way I know is to go to Settings and enable Airplane Mode, and then select and enable WiFi and re-connect to the access point. If you are using an iPod Touch, you don't have to worry about this: it can only communicate via WiFi.

Snooping on applications is a lot easier if you know your iPhone / iPod's IP address. To find the IP launch Settings, and select WiFi, click on the blue arrow next to your access point's name, and read the IP from under the DHCP tab. This blog post has a thorough guide for this step, with pictures.

Computer Setup
Go to Wireshark's download page and download the stable version .dmg for your computer. The stable version at the time of this writing has all the necessary features for snooping, so you don't need the development version unless you feel adventurous. Yes, I knew you'd ask!

The Wireshark installation is not straightforward yet (this writing uses version 1.12), so I will go through the steps. Start off with the easy part, and drag the Wireshark icon to the Applications folder. The following commands (which you can copy-paste in Terminal) implement the instructions in the Readme.rtf included in the .dmg download.

sudo cp /Volumes/Wireshark/Utilities/Command\ Line/* /usr/local/bin/
sudo cp -r /Volumes/Wireshark/Utilities/ChmodBPF /Library/StartupItems/
sudo /Library/StartupItems/ChmodBPF/ChmodBPF start
You can unmount and delete the .dmg now.

Application Traffic Snooping
Before starting Wireshark, make sure your Mac is using WiFi. I have both LAN and WiFi connections, and I pull out my LAN cable before starting up Wireshark.

Start Wireshark, ignore the dialog boxes (there should be one informing you about a potentially long startup time, and one about missing stuff while loading MIBs). Open the Capture menu, and select Intefaces. Identify your WiFi interface - it's usually en1 (that's always the case on a Macbook / Macbook Pro). Click the Options button, change the Link-layer header type to IEEE 802.11 plus radiotap WLAN header, and enable Promiscuous mode.

Your capture should be as short as possible, to make analysis easy. For this reason, get ready to launch your iPhone application, and launch it as soon as Wireshark starts capturing traffic. Click the Start button at the bottom-right of Wireshark's dialog to start playing.

To stop the capture, select Stop from the Capture menu. For a shortcut, you can use the 4th toolbar icon from the left. If everything went well, all the iPhone traffic is available for your analyzing pleasure.

The example below shows an easy method for looking at an application's traffic.

Apple Stocks Traffic
This section describes how you can observe the traffic of Apple's Stocks application that comes pre-installed on iPhone OS. You can safely skip it if you feel like exploring Wireshark on your own.

First, use the instructions above for capturing the iPhone's Internet traffic for a few seconds, right when Stocks is launched. In the packets table, click on the Source header to sort packets by source. Find the packets originating from your iPhone / iPod Touch. Go through until you find something interesting.

For the Stocks application, the first interesting packet is a DNS resolution request for which is the server feeding Stocks its information. The packets right under that are TCP packets, and you can right-click on any of them and Follow TCP stream. You will see a HTTP request / response between the Stocks application and Apple's servers. The imei parameter there caused some uproar (and blog traffic) a couple of years ago, so traffic snooping can definitely pay off.

When you close the TCP stream window, your packets window will only show the packets related to the request / response pair that you just saw. If you look in the Filter field under the toolbar, you can get a glimpse of Wireshark's filter syntax. The filter can be edited. For example, if you remove the predicate consisting of tcp.port eq and some big number, you will have all the HTTP packets between exchanged between the iPhone / iPod Touch and Apple's server.

By now, you should have a good glimpse into Stocks' communication protocol. Of course, the method described here applies to any other application, as long as it doesn't use encryption (e.g. SSL / TLS).

I use this method to see where iPhone applications get their data from, and how they communicate with their servers. For example, the Stocks application claims it uses Yahoo data, and I wanted to see if it has a private XML feed, or if it implemented its own JSON parsing.

I also used this method to analyze the protocol of an online game that I like, so that I can write a script for automating the boring tasks.

Thank you for reading this post! I'm looking forward to your feedback. I would especially appreciate comments on simplifying the setup process. Happy snooping!


  1. I would like to make stocks app to get data from my owm web based server to use it to get my own info. Do you know to do it?

  2. How do you get the iphone app to connect to the computer (running wireshark) instead of directly to the router? Shouldn't you need to setup some sort of proxy? I'm trying to do this (using AnalogX's Proxy), but I'm having trouble.

  3. @jimmerc - you don't need a proxy. By putting your computer's wi-fi interface into promiscuous mode in Wireshark, Wireshark captures all the traffic on the WLAN, including the iPhone's traffic to and from the wireless router.

  4. thank you victor, very helpful. much appreciated.

  5. Great tutorial but I'm not a computer guru and I'm getting stuck at the interface level.
    I just keep getting an error message when I try and get an interface saying "There are no interfaces on which a capture can be done"
    This is on a MacBook Pro running Wireshark 1.4.2
    Do you know what I may be doing wrong?

  6. Anonymous, try running Wireshark as root.

    Terminal, sudo wireshark &
    Enter your password when prompted.

    You need root to access NIC interfaces.

  7. For businesses it needs to stay at the top by using new software solutions. Some applications could be developed by outsource company that provides Microsoft software development for business companies.