Reverse Engineering is One of Your Best Weapons in the Fight Against Cyberattacks
Reverse engineering is a powerful tool to keep in your cybersecurity tool belt.
- By Dennis Turpitka
- Feb 26, 2019
Most people in the cybersecurity world picture reverse engineering in its black hat — when it is being used to steal data and intellectual property. But when it is in the hands of cybersecurity experts, reverse engineering dons the white hat of the hero.
Broadly speaking, reverse engineering is about looking at a program from the outside in — often by a third party that had no hand in writing the original code. It allows those who practice it to understand how a given program or system works when no source code is available. With reverse engineering, your team can accomplish several tasks related to cybersecurity: finding system vulnerabilities, researching malware and viruses, and analyzing the complexity of restoring core software algorithms that can further protect against theft.
Security experts can apply reverse engineering themselves to understand how hard it is to hack certain software. If it turns out to be a breeze, experts can provide recommendations on ways to complicate matters for a potential hacker. This technique can be especially useful for security software developers who work in a wide range of data formats and protocols, conduct lots of research for client issues, and ensure code’s compatibility with third-party software.
No doubt, reverse engineering is a powerful tool to keep in your cybersecurity tool belt, and the more familiar you are with its use cases, the better you will be able to deploy it.
Modern Threats to Cybersecurity
Many businesses and individuals are now moving data from local storage to cloud-based storage — which offers several security and logistical advantages, but it is not invincible. Even the most protected cloud storage platforms, such as iCloud, cannot completely protect your information, and hackers using reverse engineering can still abuse the most secure algorithms guarding iOS services.
This problem is compounded as people move more information to cloud storage, which, in turn, leads to more cloud interfaces for improved user experience. With each of these developments, another potential vulnerability opens, and the risk of user data theft increases.
Zero-day exploits are another familiar foe. These threats have bedeviled cybersecurity professionals for a long time, but they remain one of the most devastating ways in which hackers can strike. Countermeasures must be swift: Once a zero-day vulnerability comes to light, cybersecurity teams have to race against hackers to engineer a patch before an attack lands. We do not have great solutions to this problem. After all, it is hard to patch up a hole you only just discovered. But because the risks are so devastating, cybersecurity teams must be proactive in defending against this type of threat — in the same way they need to be proactive against cloud vulnerabilities.
Luckily, reverse engineering has answers for both.
Threat Prevention Through Reverse Engineering
Service development and product evaluation teams can fortify cloud data protection through reverse engineering because it allows them to find problems before hackers do. By reverse engineering the programs for data storage, encryption, and decryption key storage mechanisms, teams can find the inefficiencies and vulnerabilities before any data is put at risk. From there, they can improve their solutions and implement additional layers of security.
No single “silver bullet” exists to protect an entire system, especially a complex cloud-based one. But there is an opportunity for competition, which means the solutions will only keep improving: Cybersecurity vendors and specialists will be vying to meet demand, and these third parties will use reverse engineering to research proprietary data, examining the code piece by piece to build effective protection for it.
Additionally, the cloud solutions market is gradually becoming more mature — and thus more complicated — on multiple levels. Yes, cloud vendors take care of security, but as risks stay at a high and space for improvement still exists, other specialized software vendors emerge. They create third-party solutions to further protect cloud solutions. Think encryption tools for Dropbox and enhanced security plug-ins for Salesforce.
These third-party “assistants” may require reverse engineering for differing tasks. Using Dropbox as an example, the assistants may seek to develop an effective solution to encrypt or decrypt data in the application on the fly; to do this, they must understand how Dropbox works, how it sends data, etc. In essence, this is reverse engineering (for system and format research) for better compatibility with third-party vendors.
Combating zero-day exploits also requires reverse engineering. To find those weak spots, cybersecurity teams need to think like hackers, looking at a security system from the outside in. After identifying any cracks in the armor, the team can then introduce changes to the software code that heighten its defense. This practice, when repeated often enough, can make it so difficult and costly for hackers to find vulnerabilities that it is ultimately not worth their time to do so.
Reverse Engineering in Action
To bring these concepts together, let us say a bank purchases software that accesses both the internet and its own internal network. This is not uncommon, as customers expect to be able to view their banking information online. But because the bank also needs to connect its corporate database to the internet, it opens a channel that criminals can exploit.
A successful attack could lead not only to a data breach, but also to direct financial losses for any account holder. So why do we still trust banks that connect data to the internet? Fortunately, most financial institutions have cybersecurity systems that are robust enough to repel potential thieves. Those systems were built, in most cases, with reverse engineering.
When businesses hire cybersecurity teams to strengthen their defenses against hackers, the teams conduct penetration testing, attempting to infiltrate the system from multiple points of entry. It is important to note that reverse engineering should be among the applied tools used to help specialists in collecting information about all possible attack routes.
Just as a security team in a brick-and-mortar bank performs a thorough check of the doors, windows, locks, and security cameras, a cybersecurity team inspects every potential point of digital entry to make sure the system is secure.
As more of our lives and businesses move online, it will become even more important to protect our data. As internet bandits have become more sophisticated, so, too, must white-hat cybersecurity teams. Reverse engineering is powering some of the most effective cybersecurity work out there, and it will continue to command attention in the future.
Dennis Turpitka is the founder and CEO of Apriorit.