Threat Research Blog

URL Masques on App Store


Recently we blogged about iOS URL hijacking in Masque Attack II [1]. According to Apple’s “App Programming Guide for iOS”, “If more than one third-party app registers to handle the same URL scheme, there is currently no process for determining which app will be given that scheme.” [2] However, when two apps register the same URL scheme, iOS always launches the same one to handle it in our experiments using multiple iOS versions and device models. Furthermore, one app can hijack another app from handling the same URL scheme if the developer crafts the bundle id carefully.

Without fixing this imperfect design, iOS leaves this issue to app developers. There are many URL scheme conflicts among apps in Apple store. While not all of them are malicious or hijacking, they do interfere with each other and cause trouble for users. We name URL scheme conflicts in iOS apps as URL Masques. In this blog, we will study URL Masques on App Store in depth, and discuss potential attacks using them.

URL Scheme Mechanism


Figure 1. iOS Inter-App Communication

We use Facebook as an example to describe the Inter-App Communication between iOS apps, which normally has two steps [11]:

Step 1: An app requests service from another “server” app by sending the later a main URL in certain scheme. For example, if an app Alice wants to login using Facebook, it sends a main URL with the scheme fbauth:// to the Facebook app for authentication.

Step 2: After the server app finishes processing the request, it sends a callback URL to return results back to the calling app. For example, the Facebook app returns authentication results back to App Alice by sending a URL of fb118493188254996://, as shown in Figure 1.

We found three kinds of URL Masques in App Store apps:

    ●      Main URL Masques for unjustified purposes

    ●      Main URL Masques to implement product features

    ●      Callback URL Masques due to sharing codebase or SDK by mistake

Unjustified Main URL Masques

The first kind hijacks other apps’ URL schemes for unjustified purposes, as found in the case where “Zhanqi TV” hijacks “Alipay” URL scheme. A recent wooyun article by Min Zheng [7] reveals that an App Store app “Zhanqi TV” [3], a platform for live broadcasting game contests, hijacks the URL scheme “Alipay” app, the popular payment app from Alibaba on latest non-jailbroken iOS 8.2. Figure 2 illustrates such a scenario, with Figure 2-1 showing the normal case where iOS launches Alipay app to process “alipay://” payment calls and Figure 2-2 showing the hijacking case where Zhanqi TV hijacks “alipay://” scheme thus prevents Alipay app from doing that.

Figure 2-1. Normally iOS launches Alipay app to handle “alipay://” scheme for payments


Figure 2-2. “Zhanqi TV” hijacks "alipay://" and prevents Alipay app from handling that scheme

Figure 3. “Zhanqi TV” has an empty handler for "alipay://" URL scheme

We reverse-engineered the “Zhanqi TV” app and found that its Alipay URL scheme handler did nothing, as shown in Figure 3. However, it does block other apps from using Alipay by doing so. We don’t know what is the exact reason for Zhanqi TV to do so. However, we do learn from such a case that URL Masques do bypass the Apple App Store review process and they cause trouble for iOS users. After being notified of this problem, Zhanqi TV developers are actively fixing this issue.

Main URL Masques Designed as A Feature

The second kind leverages conflicting URL schemes to implement product features. As we noted in Masque Attack II blog [1], popular apps such as Google Chrome export functionalities to other apps through URL schemes. For instance, when opening links starting with “googlechrome://” or “googlechromes://” in mobile Safari, iOS launches Google Chrome to handle them. However, an app working as an “Anywhere Filter Browser” on App Store [8] preempts Google Chrome from doing that by registering “googlechrome://” and “googlechromes://”. In this way, it implements a part of its filtering features.

At least for now, the review policy of Apple Store has not explicitly denied such a usage of URL Masques, as shown in this Anywhere Filter Browser case.

Callback URL Masques Inherited as A Mistake

The third kind might be due to sharing codebase or SDK without altering URL schemes. Some of these apps are using the same template for development and that might become the root cause of massive URL scheme conflictions. Table.1 shows the top 10 URL Masques collected from about 720K iOS apps. E.g. 8048 different apps register the same URL scheme: fb118493188254996://, though many of them are from different developers. In the top list, ‘fbxxxxxxxxxxx’ are callbacks for facebook [9]; ‘QQxxxxxxxxxxx’ are callbacks for QQ, a popular messenger in China [10]; ‘dps.’ is a scheme prefix used in apps developed with Adobe Digital Publishing Suite [12, 13, 14].


URL Scheme





















Table 1. Top 10 URL Masques

Callback URL Masque Hijacking

Table 1 shows that callback URL Masques are much more popular than main URL Masques. Furthermore, just like their main URL counterparts, callback URL masques can also be used to attack against valuable apps. Due to the prevalence of callback URL Masques, it is even a bigger challenge for Apple to validate all these callback URL Masques in the review process.

Here is a demo for iOS callback URL hijacking between Uber and Facebook. Note that this attack exploits the iOS URL hijacking vulnerability instead of any vulnerability in these two apps.


There are many URL Masques on iOS App Store. Though some of them are due to product feature needs or implementation mistakes, unjustified URL Masques do exist in App Store and cause trouble for normal users. Further, due to the prevalence of callback URL Masques in App Store, attackers can potentially launch attacks combining URL Masques and other techniques through App Store apps. We address this problem in this blog to help users better understand the threat and protect themselves.







[6] CVE-2014-4493