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Android changes for NDK developers

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Posted by Dmitry Malykhanov, Developer Advocate

Related to other improvements to the Android platform, the dynamic linker in Android M and N has stricter requirements for writing clean, cross-platform compatible native code in order to load. It is necessary that an application’s native code follows the rules and recommendations in order to ensure a smooth transition to recent Android releases.

Below we outline in detail each individual change related to native code loading, the consequences and steps you can take to avoid issues.

Required tools: there is an <arch>-linux-android-readelf binary (e.g. arm-linux-androideabi-readelf or i686-linux-android-readelf) for each architecture in the NDK (under toolchains/), but you can use readelf for any architecture, as we will be doing basic inspection only. On Linux you need to have the “binutils” package installed for readelf, and “pax-utils” for scanelf.

Private API (Enforced since API 24)

Native libraries must use only public API, and must not link against non-NDK platform libraries. Starting with API 24 this rule is enforced and applications are no longer able to load non-NDK platform libraries. The rule is enforced by the dynamic linker, so non-public libraries are not accessible regardless of the way code tries to load them: System.loadLibrary(...), DT_NEEDED entries, and direct calls to dlopen(...) will fail in exactly the same way.

Users should have a consistent app experience across updates, and developers shouldn’t have to make emergency app updates to handle platform changes. For that reason, we recommend against using private C/C++ symbols. Private symbols aren’t tested as part of the Compatibility Test Suite (CTS) that all Android devices must pass. They may not exist, or they may behave differently. This makes apps that use them more likely to fail on specific devices, or on future releases --- as many developers found when Android 6.0 Marshmallow switched from OpenSSL to BoringSSL.

In order to reduce the user impact of this transition, we’ve identified a set of libraries that see significant use from Google Play’s most-installed apps, and that are feasible for us to support in the short term (including libandroid_runtime.so, libcutils.so, libcrypto.so, and libssl.so). In order to give you more time to transition, we will temporarily support these libraries; so if you see a warning that means your code will not work in a future release -- please fix it now!

$ readelf --dynamic libBroken.so | grep NEEDED
 0x00000001 (NEEDED)                     Shared library: [libnativehelper.so]
 0x00000001 (NEEDED)                     Shared library: [libutils.so]
 0x00000001 (NEEDED)                     Shared library: [libstagefright_foundation.so]
 0x00000001 (NEEDED)                     Shared library: [libmedia_jni.so]
 0x00000001 (NEEDED)                     Shared library: [liblog.so]
 0x00000001 (NEEDED)                     Shared library: [libdl.so]
 0x00000001 (NEEDED)                     Shared library: [libz.so]
 0x00000001 (NEEDED)                     Shared library: [libstdc++.so]
 0x00000001 (NEEDED)                     Shared library: [libm.so]
 0x00000001 (NEEDED)                     Shared library: [libc.so]

Potential problems: starting from API 24 the dynamic linker will not load private libraries, preventing the application from loading.

Resolution: rewrite your native code to rely only on public API. As a short term workaround, platform libraries without complex dependencies (libcutils.so) can be copied to the project. As a long term solution the relevant code must be copied to the project tree. SSL/Media/JNI internal/binder APIs should not be accessed from the native code. When necessary, native code should call appropriate public Java API methods.

A complete list of public libraries is available within the NDK, under platforms/android-API/usr/lib.

Note: SSL/crypto is a special case, applications must NOT use platform libcrypto and libssl libraries directly, even on older platforms. All applications should use GMS Security Provider to ensure they are protected from known vulnerabilities.

Missing Section Headers (Enforced since API 24)

Each ELF file has additional information contained in the section headers. These headers must be present now, because the dynamic linker uses them for sanity checking. Some developers try to strip them in an attempt to obfuscate the binary and prevent reverse engineering. (This doesn’t really help because it is possible to reconstruct the stripped information using widely-available tools.)

$ readelf --header libBroken.so | grep 'section headers'
  Start of section headers:          0 (bytes into file)
  Size of section headers:           0 (bytes)
  Number of section headers:         0
$

Resolution: remove the extra steps from your build that strip section headers.

Text Relocations (Enforced since API 23)

Starting with API 23, shared objects must not contain text relocations. That is, the code must be loaded as is and must not be modified. Such an approach reduces load time and improves security.

The usual reason for text relocations is non-position independent hand-written assembler. This is not common. Use the scanelf tool as described in our documentation for further diagnostics:

$ scanelf -qT libTextRel.so
  libTextRel.so: (memory/data?) [0x15E0E2] in (optimized out: previous simd_broken_op1) [0x15E0E0]
  libTextRel.so: (memory/data?) [0x15E3B2] in (optimized out: previous simd_broken_op2) [0x15E3B0]
[skipped the rest]

If you have no scanelf tool available, it is possible to do a basic check with readelf instead, look for either a TEXTREL entry or the TEXTREL flag. Either alone is sufficient. (The value corresponding to the TEXTREL entry is irrelevant and typically 0 --- simply the presence of the TEXTREL entry declares that the .so contains text relocations). This example has both indicators present:

$ readelf --dynamic libTextRel.so | grep TEXTREL
 0x00000016 (TEXTREL)                    0x0
 0x0000001e (FLAGS)                      SYMBOLIC TEXTREL BIND_NOW
$

Note: it is technically possible to have a shared object with the TEXTREL entry/flag but without any actual text relocations. This doesn’t happen with the NDK, but if you’re generating ELF files yourself make sure you’re not generating ELF files that claim to have text relocations, because the Android dynamic linker trusts the entry/flag.

Potential problems: Relocations enforce code pages being writable, and wastefully increase the number of dirty pages in memory. The dynamic linker has issued warnings about text relocations since Android K (API 19), but on API 23 and above it refuses to load code with text relocations.

Resolution: rewrite assembler to be position independent to ensure no text relocations are necessary. Check the Gentoo documentation for cookbook recipes.

Invalid DT_NEEDED Entries (Enforced since API 23)

While library dependencies (DT_NEEDED entries in the ELF headers) can be absolute paths, that doesn’t make sense on Android because you have no control over where your library will be installed by the system. A DT_NEEDED entry should be the same as the needed library’s SONAME, leaving the business of finding the library at runtime to the dynamic linker.

Before API 23, Android’s dynamic linker ignored the full path, and used only the basename (the part after the last ‘/’) when looking up the required libraries. Since API 23 the runtime linker will honor the DT_NEEDED exactly and so it won’t be able to load the library if it is not present in that exact location on the device.

Even worse, some build systems have bugs that cause them to insert DT_NEEDED entries that point to a file on the build host, something that cannot be found on the device.

$ readelf --dynamic libSample.so | grep NEEDED
 0x00000001 (NEEDED)                     Shared library: [libm.so]
 0x00000001 (NEEDED)                     Shared library: [libc.so]
 0x00000001 (NEEDED)                     Shared library: [libdl.so]
 0x00000001 (NEEDED)                     Shared library:
[C:\Users\build\Android\ci\jni\libBroken.so]
$

Potential problems: before API 23 the DT_NEEDED entry’s basename was used, but starting from API 23 the Android runtime will try to load the library using the path specified, and that path won’t exist on the device. There are broken third-party toolchains/build systems that use a path on a build host instead of the SONAME.

Resolution: make sure all required libraries are referenced by SONAME only. It is better to let the runtime linker to find and load those libraries as the location may change from device to device.

Missing SONAME (Used since API 23)

Each ELF shared object (“native library”) must have a SONAME (Shared Object Name) attribute. The NDK toolchain adds this attribute by default, so its absence indicates either a misconfigured alternative toolchain or a misconfiguration in your build system. A missing SONAME may lead to runtime issues such as the wrong library being loaded: the filename is used instead when this attribute is missing.

$ readelf --dynamic libWithSoName.so | grep SONAME
 0x0000000e (SONAME)                     Library soname: [libWithSoName.so]
$

Potential problems: namespace conflicts may lead to the wrong library being loaded at runtime, which leads to crashes when required symbols are not found, or you try to use an ABI-incompatible library that isn’t the library you were expecting.

Resolution: the current NDK generates the correct SONAME by default. Ensure you’re using the current NDK and that you haven’t configured your build system to generate incorrect SONAME entries (using the -soname linker option).

Please remember, clean, cross-platform code built with a current NDK should have no issues on Android N. We encourage you to revise your native code build so that it produces correct binaries.

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