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Reverse Engineering Tools and Concepts

Reverse engineering fuels entire technical industries and paves the way for competition. Reverse engineers work on hard problems like integrating software with proprietary protocols and code. They also are often tasked with unraveling the mysteries of new products released by competitors. The boom in the 1980s of the PC clone market was heavily driven by the ability to reverse engineer the IBM PC BIOS software. The same tricks have been applied in the set-top game console industry (which includes the Sony PlayStation, for example). Chip manufacturers Cyrix and AMD have reverse engineered the Intel microprocessor to release compatible chips. From a legal perspective, reverse engineering work is dangerous because it skirts the edges of the law. New laws such as the DMCA and UCITA (which many security analysts decry as egregious), put heavy restrictions on reverse engineering. If you are tasked with reverse engineering software legally, you need to understand these laws. We are not going to dwell on the legal aspects of reverse engineering because we are not legal experts. Suffice it to say that it is very important to seek legal counsel on these matters, especially if you represent a company that cares about its intellectual property.

The Debugger

A debugger is a software program that attaches to and controls other software programs. A debugger allows single stepping of code, debug tracing, setting breakpoints, and viewing variables and memory state in the target program as it executes in a stepwise fashion. Debuggers are invaluable in determining logical program flow. Debuggers fall into two categories: user-mode and kernel-mode debuggers. User-mode debuggers run like normal programs under the OS and are subject to the same rules as normal programs. Thus, user-mode debuggers can only debug other user-level processes. A kernel-mode debugger is part of the OS and can debug device drivers and even the OS itself. One of the most popular commercial kernel-mode debuggers is called SoftIce and it is published by Compuware (http://www.compuware.com/products/driverstudio/ds/softice.htm).

Fault Injection Tools

Tools that can supply malformed or improperly formatted input to a target software process to cause failures are one class of fault injection tool. Program failures can be analyzed to determine whether errors exist in the target software. Some failures have security implications, such as failures that allow an attacker direct access to the host computer or network. Fault injection tools fall into two categories: host and network. Host-based fault injectors operate like debuggers and can attach to a process and alter program states. Network-based fault injectors manipulate network traffic to determine the effect on the receiver.

Although classic approaches to fault injection often make use of source code instrumentation [Voas and McGraw, 1999], some modern fault injectors pay more attention to tweaking program input. Of particular interest to security practitioners are Hailstorm (Cenzic), the Failure Simulation Tool or FST (Cigital), and Holodeck (Florida Tech). James Whittaker's approach to fault injection for testing (and breaking) software is explained in two books [Whittaker, 2002; Whittaker and Thompson, 2003].

The Disassembler

A disassembler is a tool that converts machine-readable code into assembly language. Assembly language is a human-readable form of machine code (well, more human readable than a string of bits anyway). Disassemblers reveal which machine instructions are being used in the code. Machine code is usually specific to a given hardware architecture (such as the PowerPC chip or Intel Pentium chip). Thus, disassemblers are written expressly for the target hardware architecture.

The Reverse Compiler or Decompiler

A decompiler is a tool that converts assembly code or machine code into source code in a higher level language such as C. Decompilers also exist to transform intermediate languages such as Java byte code and Microsoft Common Runtime Language (CRL) into source code such as Java. These tools are extremely helpful in determining higher level logic such as loops, switches, and if-then statements. Decompilers are much like disassemblers but take the process one (important) step further. A good disassembler/compiler pair can be used to compile its own collective output back into the same binary.

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