Reverse Engineering Hostile Code

Thursday, 24 October 2002, 12:03 PM EST

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.

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