Reverse Engineering Hostile Code

    Date24 Oct 2002
    3108
    Posted ByAnthony Pell
    Computer criminals are always ready and waiting to compromise a weakness in a system. When they do, they usually leave programs on the system to maintain their control. We refer to these programs as "Trojans" after the story of the ancient . . . Computer criminals are always ready and waiting to compromise a weakness in a system. When they do, they usually leave programs on the system to maintain their control. We refer to these programs as "Trojans" after the story of the ancient Greek Trojan horse. Often these programs are custom compiled and not widely distributed. Because of this, anti-virus software will not often detect their presence. It also means information about what any particular custom Trojan does is also not generally available, so a custom analysis of the code is necessary to determine the extent of the threat and to pinpoint the origin of the attack if possible.

    This article outlines the process of reverse engineering hostile code. By "hostile code", we mean any process running on a system that is not authorized by the system administrator, such as Trojans, viruses, or spyware. This article is not intended to be an in-depth tutorial, but rather a description of the tools and steps involved. Armed with this knowledge, even someone who is not an expert at assembly language programming should be able to look at the internals of a hostile program and determine what it is doing, at least on a surface level.

    As with most types of engineering, you'll need some tools. We'll cover tools native to both Unix and Windows. While Unix is the ideal platform to perform the initial reverse engineering process, you can still make do on Windows, especially if you install tools such as Cygwin, a Unix environment that runs on Win32 platforms. Most of these commands are also available for Windows when running Cygwin. However, when you get to the decompile/disassemble/debug steps ahead, going the Windows route will cost a lot of money, whereas the Unix solutions are all free. Be sure to weigh the costs of working on Windows versus the benefits before making it your reverse-engineering platform of choice.

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