Privacy International's data interception environment

Publish Date

The documentation below is a copy of the documentation found on Github: Interception environment on Github

Privacy International's data interception environment

Version: 2.1.2-20190730

Quick Start Guide

For those who just want to get analysing

Prerequisites (as this is a quick start guide):

  • VirtualBox 6.x Installed (
  • A Wifi USB Dongle ( or any other Ralink 5370 Chipset USB Adapter)
  • Internet Connectivity
  • Some experience of UNIX-like operating systems (particularly those using systemd)
  • Some experience with Android and the Android Developer Bridge (ADB)
  • An Android Handset that is rooted and has ADB enabled, running Oreo (Android 8.X) or earlier

Step 1 - Download

Head to Privacy International's website and download the VM/Virtual Appliance (OVA, extension .ova):

Step 2 - Importation

Double Click on the OVA.

This should open VirtualBox if .ova is associated with VirtualBox, otherwise you can click Import Appliance from the File Menu in VirtualBox

Click import

Read and accept the licence agreement

Step 3 - Initialising

Plug in your Wifi USB if you haven't done so already.

Make sure the Wifi USB dongle is connected to the Virtual Machine ( Menu Bar - Device -> USB )

Step 4 - Setup

Start the Virtual Machine, either by clicking the Start button in the VirtualBox Manager, or by double-clicking on the VM in the list.

Once the desktop has loaded, you will need to run, which will provide the wireless daemon with the device identifier for your wireless network dongle

Open the Terminal (Applications -> System Tools -> QTerminal)

Type the following command sudo systemctl enable hostapd to enable the Wireless Daemon

Reboot the Virtual Machine

Check on your mobile device and see if it can connect to the WiFi network "pi_maninthemiddle".

Now your device should say "Connected, no Internet" (showing an X against the WiFi symbol) - This is good! This means that your device is waiting for mitmproxy to be started

You can now start mitmproxy using "" on the desktop

When you have finished, you can end your session "". Your captured data will be saved in your home directory.

Troubleshooting: (most of these require the use of the terminal)

I cannot see the "pi_maninthemiddle" network on my device Something is is likely wrong with either your hardware or hostapd.

  • Double check that your WiFi dongle is connected to the Virtual Machine.
  • Make sure the interface name is correct in hostapd's configuration file: sudo nano /etc/hostapd/hostapd.conf
  • You can run hostapd manually to see if there are any other issues causing it to not start: sudo killall hostapd; sleep 4; sudo hostapd -p /etc/hostapd/hostapd.conf

I am not being assigned an IP address (My device can see the network, but keeps looping between connecting states)

  • Restart dnsmasq sudo service dnsmasq restart

Step 5 - Capture

Once you have started mitmproxy, visit on your mobile device in a web browser. You should receive prompts to install the certificate on your device.

Install the certificate, and using a web browser app like Chrome see if you can browse the Internet on your device,

If you are getting errors in the logfile for mitmproxy stating that the certificate is not trusted, see below - Step 6

Step 6 - Android Nougat or Later

Google changed the way the certificate store works in Android Nougat, please follow this guide to correctly install your certificate.

As this is a quick start, the rough steps are:

  • Get the ID of the Certificate in a format that Android Expects sudo openssl x509 -inform PEM -subject_hash_old -in /root/.mitmproxy/mitmproxy-ca-cert.pem | head -1
  • Note the output: e.g "abcdef12"
  • Copy the Certificate to the Device over ADB adb push /root/.mitmproxy/mitmproxy-ca-cert.pem /sdcard/<NamefromOpenSSLOutput>.0
  • Remount the /system partition as read-write, copy the certificate, set its permissions (requires superuser/root access):
adb shell
mount -o remount,rw /system
cp /sdcard/<NamefromOpenSSLOutput>.0 /system/etc/security/cacerts
chmod 644 /system/etc/security/cacerts/NamefromOpenSSLOutput>.0
chown root:root /system/etc/security/cacerts/NamefromOpenSSLOutput>.0
mount -o remount,ro /system
  • Then reboot the device

Once restarted, check mitmproxy's certificate has been imported into your mobile device: (Exact path may vary by version) Settings > Security > Encryption & Credentials > Trusted Credentials > System.

You should see mitmproxy's certificate listed.


In December 2018, Privacy International released a report highlighting how Facebook can track you via Android apps even when you're not a Facebook user. Frederike Kaltheuner and Christopher Weatherhead presented the findings of this report at the 35th Chaos Computer Congress (35C3). Privacy International committed during that talk to releasing the environment used to conduct this research to allow others to either repeat or expand upon it.

Although the tools themselves are relatively trivial and there are already generic toolkits (such as Kali) that encompass them, this Virtual Machine is specifically for one purpose, and includes documentation to assist with that purpose. This hopefully negates some of the necessity to read various forum posts or disparate documentation.

NB: This is a replica of the original environment used to conduct the research. There are a number of reasons why the original environment was unsuitable for redistribution, principally potential issues around licensing due to the use of proprietary drivers. In addition, the original environment was devised in June 2018 and many of tools and features have subsequently been updated. The updated software is present in this environment.


This toolkit is built around a flaw that exists in the trust paradigm used extensively on the Internet. When secure connections such as HTTPS are established, the client checks against an internal store of "trust anchors" in its "trust store" - known as certificate authorities (CAs for short). CAs are trusted in most operating systems through a number of methods, predominantly via commercial agreements.

This toolkit introduces a CA that we add to the "trust store" (see step 5 and 6 above), allowing us to intercept secure traffic in transit as the client now trusts this CA in addition to the preconfigured ones.

This is where the term man-in-the-middle (MITM) comes from, as we are inserting ourselves between the client and the server, intercepting and analysing any communications between them.


Inside this toolkit there are number of components which work together to allow for interception of data in transit.

Let's talk through each element and how they work together, then we will discuss the various ways that they can be used.

Virtualbox (6.0.4)

Virtualbox is a free (libre & gratis), cross-platform Virtual Machine manager. It allows for one operating system to be run inside another by emulating the features of a physical computer virtually.

As far as the operating system inside the Virtual Machine is concerned it is running on physical hardware (mostly). The advantage of doing this is that any physical hardware from the host is abstracted and the software inside is then portable, so can be redistributed.

It also means that any activity inside the virtual machine is contained and isolated from the real operating system that you use on the host.

Debian 10 (Buster)

Debian is a flavour of GNU/Linux, a UNIX-like Kernel and operating system architecture.

Debian Buster is the current stable release of the operating system. Buster differs from the previous stable release (Stretch) in that it incorporates an updated version of Python which eases the installation of mitmproxy, a major component of this toolset

mitmproxy (4.0.4)

mitmproxy is an open-source proxy (intermediary) server written in Python.

In essence, it takes connections in on one side, opens them up for analysis, and then forwards them to the other side in full-duplex. Its key feature is that it generates any required certificates in real-time.

This ensures that the incoming connection (from the client), believes that the proxy is the real destination. In this pre-configured environment mitmproxy is configured in "transparent" mode. This means no additional settings need to be changed on the client, other than the installation of mitmproxy's certificate.

dnsmasq (2.80) (Enabled)

dnsmasq is a lightweight DNS (domain name service) and DHCP (dynamic-host configuration protocol) server.

It serves two purposes;

  1. It gives out IP addresses, allowing devices to join a given network without having to manually configure network-specific settings such as DNS server, default route and domain.
  2. It services DNS requests; this predominantly involves turning domain names such as into IP addresses such as

hostapd (2.6) (Disabled)

hostapd is a configurable 802.11 (Wireless LAN) daemon, which allows wireless devices to be configured in a number of ways.

In this toolset it is disabled by default as we don't know what WLAN controller you are using. It does, however, have a sane default configuration, and can be easily enabled.

iptables (1.8.2)

iptables is the de-facto standard firewalling system in many Linux-based operating systems.

It uses a table of human-readable rules to categorise and manipulate traffic through a set of well known networking states.

In this toolset it serves two purposes

  1. It feeds traffic from ports 80 (http) and 443 (https) into mitmproxy
  2. It also allows for other connections to be masqueraded so that the VM acts like a router.

Component Layout

+----------+          +-------------------------+             +--------------+
|  Public  +----------+  Privacy International  +-------------+Android Device|
| Internet |         ||  MitmProxy Environment  ||  Wireless: |with mitm cert|
+----------+         ||        VirtualBox       ||pi_mitmproxy+--------------+
               enp0s3+---------------------------+USB WiFi
                (NAT)                             Dongle

Let's walk through the diagram from left-to-right.

  • The Internet as displayed in the diagram would be which ever way you usually connect to the internet.
  • Adapter 1 in virtualbox (enp0s3 inside the VM) should be set as a NAT device. This will mean the VM will use the host's network connection to gain access to the internet without requiring any other configuration within the guest.
  • The Virtualbox VM should be booted and mitmproxy should be running before trying to connect any downstream devices. There are scripts on the desktop which are explained in more detail in the usage section.
  • To the right of the VM is a wireless NIC (we assume a USB dongle). In the shipped configuration this should be disabled, and must be configured before attempting to run mitmproxy. It will host the Wireless network pi_mitmproxy
  • Finally, on the far right is the device you want to analyse. This is assumed to be an Android Phone. The following changes will need to be made to your device: -- It must be connected to the network provided by the WLAN NIC (pi_mitmproxy) -- You will need to install mitmproxy's certificate into the devices trust store. Further instructions for this can be found below.



  • A Notebook or Desktop, with internet access, capable of running VirtualBox 6.x
  • A Device you wish to analyse. In this guide an Android phone is assumed, and furthermore, it is assumed to be rooted
  • A wireless USB Dongle. The main guide will assume a Ralink based one, as installation and configuration of the multitude of wireless network adapters falls outside the scope of this guide.

Our suggestion for USB Dongles is the following:

  • (they are not fancy, but they do work) (search amazon for ralink rt5370 in your own country)

Required Changes

As your local environment and hardware will be different to that used by Privacy International, there are few things worth checking before starting the Virtual Machine.

Before starting the VM

The number of assigned CPUs and quantity of RAM

You may want to check that you can allocate the required resources for the VM.

In its default state the VM is allocated 2 CPUs, and 1024 MBs RAM. This means the minimum requirements for your host computer is a dual-core processor and 2048MBs RAM. However, this setup won't be particularly performant and we strongly recommend increasing both of these to 4 CPUs and 2048 MBs RAM if your host system has the capacity.

Network Controllers

You should check that your Wireless NIC is correctly connected to the Virtual Machine. It's best to do this before trying to boot the VM!

Once started

Internet Connectivity

You can test this after the VM has booted by opening a browser and seeing if sites like load correctly.

Desktop Items

There are a number of desktop items, most of them linking to configuration files. Below is a list of the filenames and their purposes

-                   - GPL 3.0 Licence
-                    - This Readme
-        - A graphical user interface for managing systemd services
-	     - An editor for `/etc/dnsmasq.conf`
- - An editor for `/etc/network/interfaces`
-       - An editor for `/etc/apt/sources.list`
-         - An editor for `/etc/hostapd/hostapd.conf`
-           - A script to start mitmproxy (mitmweb)
-            - A script to terminate (all) mitmproxy's
- - A script to configure wireless interfaces automatically
-   - A script to start mitmproxy (mitmweb) without http2 support, (mitigates some Android Bugs)
- .     - A script to start mitmproxy (mitmweb) non-transparently, so that iOS devices can be intercepted

Note: We would STRONGLY recommend clicking the "Execute in Terminal" option when executing any of these scripts

In the browser (Firefox)

In the browser there are four bookmarks

  • Manual - This Document (Rendered)
  • MitMProxy - A link to the local mitmweb instance, frontend for mitmproxy
  • Jeroenhd's Excellent Guide to installing Certificates in Android Nougat and later
  • mitmproxy Documentation - A link to the official documentation for mitmproxy


  1. Once the VM is started we suggest reading this manual in full!

  2. Run from the Desktop and ensure that your wireless network interface is correctly configured.

  3. Enable hostapd by running the following command in a terminal sudo service systemctl enable hostapd

  4. We then recommend restarting the Virtual Machine. If you are still in terminal window, you can do this with the following command: sudo shutdown -r now

  5. Once the machine is restarted you should be ready to do analysis. To do this, start mitmproxy using the script on the desktop

  6. Once you have captured data, you can use to end the mitmproxy process. Your data will be saved in a flow-*.cap file in /home/privacy/

Configuring your handset

Google changed the way the certificate store works in Android Nougat, please follow this guide to correctly install mitmproxy's certificate on your device.

If you are using earlier versions of Android, you should be able to visit once connected to your mitmproxy access point, and install the certificate directly. The abridged steps for installing on Nougat and later can be found in Step 6 - Notes for Android Nougat or Later.


The methodology Privacy International used to do our analyses is as follows:

  • All data being transmitted between Facebook and apps is encrypted in transit using Transport Layer Security (TLS, formerly - and still widely referred to as - SSL).
  • Our analysis consisted of capturing and decrypting data in transit between our own device and Facebook’s servers (so called "man-in-the-middle") using the free and open source software tool "mitmproxy", an interactive HTTPS proxy.
  • Mitmproxy works by decrypting and re-encrypting packets on-the-fly by masquerading as a remote secure endpoint (in this case Facebook).
  • In order to make this work, we added mitmproxy's public key to our device as a trusted authority. All data exists on our local network at time of decryption.
  • The Android handset used was running a "pure" (unadulterated) version of Android, connected to a new Google Account set up for the sole purpose of this research.
  • Once the device was set up with the appropriate settings (i.e. Wi-Fi, certificate trust, security such as PIN and screen lockout, and developer tools such as showing touches) a full phone "nandroid" backup was taken. This ensured the device could quickly be returned to a known state. This is particularly important as considering that when some apps are installed and run, they continue to run in the background potentially polluting the results.

After each nandroid restoration, the following steps were undertaken:

  1. Connect to a non-intercepting Wi-Fi
  2. Download the Application from the Google Play Store
  3. Connect to mitmproxy VM (via Wi-Fi), and create a new flow
  4. Start Screen Recording using ADB, start screen recording in Virtualbox
  5. Open the app, and do various activities for up to 320 seconds (if the app requires sign up to use, a new Google account was created at the start of the process)
  6. Save screen recording off the phone and stop the flow in mitmproxy
  7. Reboot to recovery and restore the nandroid backup, ready to restart the process
  8. Reboot the device

Details of the analysis were recorded using the following methods:

  • All session data that traversed mitmproxy ("flows") were recorded and stored, so they could be further analysed, and shared later should the need arise (in the environment this happens automatically using the scripts provided)
  • All activities and interactions on the screen were recorded as video using Android's Developer Bridge (ADB) screenrecord (you may wish to do this for your own documentation purposes)


Common issues and their fixes

Virtualbox installation note for MacOS users

[MacOS]: If you are using High Sierra or later, you will need to unblock the kernel driver that Virtualbox installs. This can be done in Security & Privacy in the System Preferences, a prompt should appear during installation.

Starting the environment

I'm having issues starting the environment

If you are having issues starting the environment, check that Virtualbox is installed correctly (see note above). Check that Virtualbox is at least version 6.x.

If you are still having problems, create an issue on the github tracker.

I'm having issues with display

The environment was compiled with Virtualbox guest additions, which means that the display should automatically resize. We suggest using the View -> Virtual Display menu, and setting the virtual display to at least 1920x1080

The environment is slow or unresponsive

You may want to check that you can allocate the required resources for the VM, in its default state the VM is allocated 2CPUs and 1024MBs RAM. This means that the minimum requirements are a dual-core host, with 2048MBs RAM. This setup won't be particularly performant, so we strongly recommend increasing both of these to 4 CPUs and 2048 MBs RAM if your host system has the capacity.

The Firefox window that opens states "Internal Server Error"

The virtual machine didn't have internet access at startup. This is a non critical error, it just means that the documentation won't be displayed in an aesthetically pleasing way. The documentation can still be opened by using leafpad (or any other text editor) with the on the desktop.

Using the tools

My wireless USB isn't appearing in iw list and its definitely connected to the VM

The environment only has drivers/firmware for Ralink adapters, other adapters (such as Realtek) will require their own drivers to be installed, configuring your specific wireless nic falls outside the scope of this document. Either Google <WLANChipset> Debian or contact your vendor.

I can't see a wireless network called pi_mitmproxy

Check that hostapd is running, that the nic is correctly set in the /etc/hostapd/hostapd.conf configuration files. You can always start hostapd in debug mode using this command:

sudo service hostapd stop; sudo killall hostapd; sleep 4;sudo hostapd -p /etc/hostapd/hostapd.conf

My device is looping between connecting and disabled, when I look at the "Wi-Fi" setting in Android

This is indicative of dnsmasq not correctly issuing an IP address. You can restart dnsmasq:

sudo service dnsmasq restart

It may also be because the wireless nic is not correctly defined in /etc/network/interfaces/ check that the nic has a valid stanza in that configuration file, then restart networking and dnsmasq

sudo service networking restart; sudo service dnsmasq restart

Note DNSMasq occasionally experiences a race condition with hostapd, restarting both services should rectify this. sudo service networking restart; sudo service hostapd restart; sudo service dnsmasq restart

My device is connected, but states it has no internet access

This means either mitmproxy isn't running, or you legitimately have no Internet. If mitmproxy is running, check that you have internet. You can do this by trying to ping in terminal, if you are seeing issues/timeouts, reconnect and restart the VM

mitmproxy says Client Handshake failed. The client may not trust the proxy's certificate

The certificate has not been installed on your handset correctly, please see: Android Nougat or Later Certificate installation

mitmproxy says Initiating HTTP/2 connections with prior knowledge are currently not supported

This is a known issue with mitmproxy and recent versions of Android, the IPs being connected to appear to belong to Google. See this Github issue for more detail

I'm using Android Pie (9) or later, and I'm having difficulties

You may experience issues with Android Pie, as it supports TLS 1.3 which has mitigations against man-in-the-middle. Some providers (like Facebook) won't negotiate a connection if there is a man-in-the-middle detected

I'm trying to connect my device for ADB, but Virtualbox won't recognise it

Modern phones that use USB-C type connectors may not have backwards support for USB 1.1 that ships by default in Virtualbox. You may need to install the Virtualbox extension pack (if you are able to comply with the licence) and configure USB 3.0 in the VM's settings.

My device is connected, but I can't adb shell

Make sure that USB Debugging is enabled (this may involve enabling developer mode on your device). If USB Debugging is enabled, check that your device is connect in "File Transfer", "MTP" or "PTP" mode (some devices don't allow the bridge to function in "USB Charge only" mode)

In adb shell command su is not found

Your device hasn't been "rooted", make sure your device is "rooted" by searching for appropriate documentation online. PI accepts no liability for a device becoming inoperable or data loss due to any rooting process.


Privacy International would like to thank all the contributors to the Open Source projects used in this environment.

Privacy International would also like to thank:

  • The 35th Chaos Congress (35C3) and Chaos Computer Club (CCC) - for their help and support.
  • Exodus Privacy- For their original research and tools
  • - For their research

This document was contributed to by:

From Privacy International:

Christopher Weatherhead, Frederike Kaltheuner, Eliot Bendinelli, Ed Geraghty and Eva Blum-Dumontet

Further pull requests will be accepted

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