Reversing Applications – Reverse Engineering For Beginners

Published by Sundareswaran on

Reverse Engineering – Chapter 1

Reversing Applications

Reversing Applications

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Reversing Applications

It would be fair to say that in most industries reverse engineering for the purpose of developing competing products is the most well-known application of reverse engineering. The interesting thing is that it really isn’t as popular in the
software industry as one would expect. There are several reasons for this, but it is primarily because the software is so complex that in many cases reverse engineering for competitive purposes is thought to be such a complex process that it just doesn’t make sense financially. Reversing Applications

So what are the common applications of reverse engineering in the software world? Generally speaking, there are two categories of reverse engineering applications: security-related and software development–related. The following sections present the various reversing applications in both categories.

Click here to read Reverse Engineering – Chapter 1 – PART 1

Security-Related Reversing – Reversing Applications

For some people, the connection between security and reversing might not be immediately clear. Reversing is related to several different aspects of computer security. For example, reversing has been employed in encryption research—a researcher reverses an encryption product and evaluates the level of security it provides. Reversing is also heavily used in connection with malicious software, on both ends of the fence: it is used by both malware developers and
those developing the antidotes. Finally, reversing is very popular with crackers who use it to analyze and eventually defeat various copy protection schemes. All of these applications are discussed in the sections that follow.

Malicious Software – Reversing Applications

The Internet has completely changed the computer industry in general and the security-related aspects of computing in particular. Malicious software, such as viruses and worms, spreads so much faster in a world where millions of users are connected to the Internet and use e-mail daily. Just 10 years ago, a virus would usually have to copy itself to a diskette and that diskette would have to be loaded into another computer in order for the virus to spread.

The infection process was fairly slow, and defense was much simpler because the channels of infection were few and required human intervention for the program
to spread. That is all ancient history—the Internet has created a virtual connection between almost every computer on earth. Nowadays modern worms can spread automatically to millions of computers without any human intervention. Reversing is used extensively in both ends of the malicious software chain. Developers of malicious software often use reversing to locate vulnerabilities in operating systems and other software. Such vulnerabilities can be used to penetrate the system’s defense layers and allow infection—usually over the Internet. Beyond infection, culprits sometimes employ reversing techniques to locate software vulnerabilities that allow a malicious program to gain access to sensitive information or even take full control of the system. At the other end of the chain, developers of antivirus software dissect and analyze every malicious program that falls into their hands. They use reversing techniques to trace every step the program takes and assess the damage it could cause, the expected rate of infection, how it could be removed from infected systems, and whether infection can be avoided altogether. Chapter 8 serves as an introduction to the world of malicious software and demonstrates how reversing is used by antivirus program writers. Chapter 7 demonstrates how software vulnerabilities can be located using reversing techniques.

Reversing Cryptographic Algorithms – Reversing Applications

Cryptography has always been based on secrecy: Alice sends a message to Bob and encrypts that message using a secret that is (hopefully) only known to her and Bob. Cryptographic algorithms can be roughly divided into two groups: restricted algorithms and key-based algorithms. Restricted algorithms are the kind some kids play with; writing a letter to a friend with each letter shifted several letters up or down. The secret in restricted algorithms is the algorithm itself. Once the algorithm is exposed, it is no longer secure. Restricted algorithms provide very poor security because reversing makes it
very difficult to maintain the secrecy of the algorithm. Once reversers get their hands on the encrypting or decrypting program, it is only a matter of time before the algorithm is exposed. Because the algorithm is the secret, reversing can be seen as a way to break the algorithm.

On the other hand, in key-based algorithms, the secret is a key, some numeric value that is used by the algorithm to encrypt and decrypt the message. In key-based algorithms, users encrypt messages using keys that are kept private. The algorithms are usually made public, and the keys are kept private (and sometimes divulged to the legitimate recipient, depending on the algorithm). This almost makes reversing pointless because the algorithm is already
known. In order to decipher a message encrypted with a key-based cipher, you would have to either:

  1. Obtain the key
    Try all possible combinations until you get to the key
    Look for a flaw in the algorithm that can be employed to extract the key or the original message

Still, there are cases where it makes sense to reverse engineer private implementations of key-based ciphers. Even when the encryption algorithm is well-known, specific implementation details can often have an unexpected impact
on the overall level of security offered by a program. Encryption algorithms are delicate, and minor implementation errors can sometimes completely invalidate the level of security offered by such algorithms. The only way to really know for sure whether a security product that implements an encryption algorithm is truly secure is to either go through its source code (assuming it is available) or to reverse it.

Digital Rights Management – Reversing Applications

Modern computers have turned most types of copyrighted materials into digital information. Music, films, and even books, which were once only available on physical analog mediums, are now available digitally. This trend is a mixed blessing, providing huge benefits to consumers, and huge complications to copyright owners and content providers. For consumers, it means that materials have increased in quality, and become easily accessible and simple to manage. For providers, it has enabled the distribution of high-quality content at
low cost, but more importantly, it has made controlling the flow of such content an impossible mission

Digital information is incredibly fluid. It is very easy to move around and can be very easily duplicated. This fluidity means that once the copyrighted materials reach the hands of consumers, they can be moved and duplicated so easily that piracy almost becomes common practice. Traditionally, software companies have dealt with piracy by embedding copy protection technologies into their software. These are additional pieces of software embedded on top of the vendor’s software product that attempt to prevent or restrict users from copying the program.

In recent years, as digital media became a reality, media content providers have developed or acquired technologies that control the distribution of content such as music, movies, etc. These technologies are collectively called digital rights management (DRM) technologies. DRM technologies are conceptually very similar to traditional software copy protection technologies discussed above. The difference is that with software, the thing which is being protected is active or “intelligent,” and can decide whether to make itself available or not. Digital media is a passive element that is usually played or read by another program, making it more difficult to control or restrict usage. Throughout
this book I will use the term DRM to describe both types of technologies and specifically refer to media or software DRM technologies where relevant.

This topic is highly related to reverse engineering because crackers routinely use reverse-engineering techniques while attempting to defeat DRM technologies. The reason for this is that to defeat a DRM technology one must understand how it works. By using reversing techniques a cracker can learn the inner secrets of the technology and discover the simplest possible modification that could be made to the program in order to disable the protection. I
will be discussing the subject of DRM technologies and how they relate to reversing in more depth in Part III.

Auditing Program Binaries – Reversing Applications

One of the strengths of open-source software is that it is often inherently more dependable and secure. Regardless of the real security it provides, it just feels much safer to run software that has often been inspected and approved by
thousands of impartial software engineers. Needless to say, open-source software also provides some real, tangible quality benefits. With open-source software, having open access to the program’s source code means that certain
vulnerabilities and security holes can be discovered very early on, often before malicious programs can take advantage of them. With proprietary software for which source code is unavailable, reversing becomes a viable (yet admittedly limited) alternative for searching for security vulnerabilities. Of course, reverse engineering cannot make proprietary software nearly as accessible and readable as open-source software, but strong reversing skills enable one to view code and assess the various security risks it poses. I will be demonstrating this kind of reverse engineering in Chapter 7.


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