Reverse engineering, also called back engineering, is the processes of extracting knowledge or design information from anything man-made and re-producing it or reproducing anything based on the extracted information.:3 The process often involves disassembling something (a mechanical device, electronic component, computer program, or biological, chemical, or organic matter) and analyzing its components and workings in detail.
The reasons and goals for obtaining such information vary widely from everyday or socially beneficial actions, to criminal actions, depending upon the situation. Often no intellectual property rights are breached, such as when a person or business cannot recollect how something was done, or what something does, and needs to reverse engineer it to work it out for themselves. Reverse engineering is also beneficial in crime prevention, where suspected malware is reverse engineered to understand what it does, and how to detect and remove it, and to allow computers and devices to work together ("interoperate") and to allow saved files on obsolete systems to be used in newer systems. By contrast, reverse engineering can also be used to "crack" software and media to remove their copy protection,:5 or to create a (possibly improved) copy or even a knockoff; this is usually the goal of a competitor.:4
Reverse engineering has its origins in the analysis of hardware for commercial or military advantage.:13 However, the reverse engineering process in itself is not concerned with creating a copy or changing the artifact in some way; it is only an analysis in order to deduce design features from products with little or no additional knowledge about the procedures involved in their original production.:15 In some cases, the goal of the reverse engineering process can simply be a redocumentation of legacy systems.:15 Even when the product reverse engineered is that of a competitor, the goal may not be to copy them, but to perform competitor analysis. Reverse engineering may also be used to create interoperable products; despite some narrowly tailored US and EU legislation, the legality of using specific reverse engineering techniques for this purpose has been hotly contested in courts worldwide for more than two decades
Reasons for reverse engineering:
- Interfacing. Reverse engineering can be used when a system is required to interface to another system and how both systems would negotiate is to be established. Such requirements typically exist for interoperability.
- Military or commercial espionage. Learning about an enemy's or competitor's latest research by stealing or capturing a prototype and dismantling it. It may result in development of similar product, or better countermeasures for it.
- Improve documentation shortcomings. Reverse engineering can be done when documentation of a system for its design, production, operation or maintenance have shortcomings and original designers are not available to improve it. Reverse engineering of software can provide the most current documentation necessary for understanding the most current state of a software system
- Obsolescence. Integrated circuits often seem to have been designed on obsolete, proprietary systems, which means that when those systems can no longer be maintained (lack of spare parts, inefficiency, etc.), the only way to incorporate the functionality into new technology is to reverse-engineer the existing chip and then re-design it using newer tools, and using the understanding gained, as a guide. Another obsolescence originated problem which can be solved by reverse engineering is the need to support (maintenance and supply for continuous operation) existing, legacy devices which are no longer supported by their OEM. This problem is particularly critical in military operations.
- Software modernization - often knowledge is lost over time, which can prevent updates and improvements. Reverse engineering is generally needed in order to understand the 'as is' state of existing or legacy software in order to properly estimate the effort required to migrate system knowledge into a 'to be' state. Much of this may be driven by changing functional, compliance or security requirements.
- Product security analysis. To examine how a product works, what are specifications of its components, estimate costs and identify potential patent infringement. Acquiring sensitive data by disassembling and analysing the design of a system component. Another intent may be to remove copy protection, circumvention of access restrictions.
- Bug fixing. To fix (or sometimes to enhance) legacy software which is no longer supported by its creators (e.g. abandonware).
- Creation of unlicensed/unapproved duplicates, such duplicates are called sometimes clones in the computing domain.
- Academic/learning purposes. Reverse engineering for learning purposes may be understand the key issues of an unsuccessful design and subsequently improve the design.
- Competitive technical intelligence. Understand what one's competitor is actually doing, versus what they say they are doing.
- Saving money, when one finds out what a piece of electronics is capable of, it can spare a user from purchase of a separate product.
- Repurposing, in which opportunities to repurpose stuff that is otherwise obsolete can be incorporated into a bigger body of utility.
Reverse engineering of machines
As computer-aided design (CAD) has become more popular, reverse engineering has become a viable method to create a 3D virtual model of an existing physical part for use in 3D CAD, CAM, CAE or other software. The reverse-engineering process involves measuring an object and then reconstructing it as a 3D model. The physical object can be measured using 3D scanning technologies like CMMs, laser scanners, structured light digitizers, or Industrial CT Scanning (computed tomography). The measured data alone, usually represented as a point cloud, lacks topological information and is therefore often processed and modeled into a more usable format such as a triangular-faced mesh, a set of NURBS surfaces, or a CAD model.
Reverse engineering is also used by businesses to bring existing physical geometry into digital product development environments, to make a digital 3D record of their own products, or to assess competitors' products. It is used to analyse, for instance, how a product works, what it does, and what components it consists of, estimate costs, and identify potential patent infringement, etc.
Value engineering is a related activity also used by businesses. It involves de-constructing and analysing products, but the objective is to find opportunities for cost cutting.
Reverse engineering of software
The term reverse engineering as applied to software means different things to different people, prompting Chikofsky and Cross to write a paper researching the various uses and defining a taxonomy. From their paper, they state, "Reverse engineering is the process of analyzing a subject system to create representations of the system at a higher level of abstraction." It can also be seen as "going backwards through the development cycle". In this model, the output of the implementation phase (in source code form) is reverse-engineered back to the analysis phase, in an inversion of the traditional waterfall model. Another term for this technique is program comprehension.
Reverse engineering is a process of examination only: the software system under consideration is not modified (which would make it re-engineering). Software anti-tamper technology like obfuscation is used to deter both reverse engineering and re-engineering of proprietary software and software-powered systems. In practice, two main types of reverse engineering emerge. In the first case, source code is already available for the software, but higher-level aspects of the program, perhaps poorly documented or documented but no longer valid, are discovered. In the second case, there is no source code available for the software, and any efforts towards discovering one possible source code for the software are regarded as reverse engineering. This second usage of the term is the one most people are familiar with. Reverse engineering of software can make use of the clean room design technique to avoid copyright infringement.
On a related note, black box testing in software engineering has a lot in common with reverse engineering. The tester usually has the API, but their goals are to find bugs and undocumented features by bashing the product from outside.
Other purposes of reverse engineering include security auditing, removal of copy protection ("cracking"), circumvention of access restrictions often present in consumer electronics, customization of embedded systems (such as engine management systems), in-house repairs or retrofits, enabling of additional features on low-cost "crippled" hardware (such as some graphics card chip-sets), or even mere satisfaction of curiosity.
This process is sometimes termed Reverse Code Engineering, or RCE. As an example, decompilation of binaries for the Java platform can be accomplished using Jad. One famous case of reverse engineering was the first non-IBM implementation of the PC BIOS which launched the historic IBM PC compatible industry that has been the overwhelmingly dominant computer hardware platform for many years. Reverse engineering of software is protected in the U.S. by the fair use exception in copyright law. The Samba software, which allows systems that are not running Microsoft Windows systems to share files with systems that are, is a classic example of software reverse engineering, since the Samba project had to reverse-engineer unpublished information about how Windows file sharing worked, so that non-Windows computers could emulate it. The Wine project does the same thing for the Windows API, and OpenOffice.org is one party doing this for the Microsoft Office file formats. The ReactOS project is even more ambitious in its goals, as it strives to provide binary (ABI and API) compatibility with the current Windows OSes of the NT branch, allowing software and drivers written for Windows to run on a clean-room reverse-engineered GPL free software or open-source counterpart. WindowsSCOPE allows for reverse-engineering the full contents of a Windows system's live memory including a binary-level, graphical reverse engineering of all running processes.
Another classic, if not well-known example is that in 1987 Bell Laboratories reverse-engineered the Mac OS System 4.1, originally running on the Apple Macintosh SE, so they could run it on RISC machines of their own.
Binary software techniques
Reverse engineering of software can be accomplished by various methods. The three main groups of software reverse engineering are
- Analysis through observation of information exchange, most prevalent in protocol reverse engineering, which involves using bus analyzers and packet sniffers, for example, for accessing a computer bus or computer network connection and revealing the traffic data thereon. Bus or network behavior can then be analyzed to produce a stand-alone implementation that mimics that behavior. This is especially useful for reverse engineering device drivers. Sometimes, reverse engineering on embedded systems is greatly assisted by tools deliberately introduced by the manufacturer, such as JTAG ports or other debugging means. In Microsoft Windows, low-level debuggers such as SoftICE are popular.
- Disassembly using a disassembler, meaning the raw machine language of the program is read and understood in its own terms, only with the aid of machine-language mnemonics. This works on any computer program but can take quite some time, especially for someone not used to machine code. The Interactive Disassembler is a particularly popular tool.
- Decompilation using a decompiler, a process that tries, with varying results, to recreate the source code in some high-level language for a program only available in machine code or bytecode.
Software classification is the process of identifying similarities between different software binaries (for example, two different versions of the same binary) used to detect code relations between software samples. This task was traditionally done manually for several reasons (such as patch analysis for vulnerability detection and copyright infringement) but nowadays can be done somewhat automatically for large numbers of samples.
This method is being used mostly for long and thorough reverse engineering tasks (complete analysis of a complex algorithm or big piece of software). In general, statistical classification is considered to be a hard problem and this is also true for software classification, therefore there aren't many solutions/tools that handle this task well.
A number of UML tools refer to the process of importing and analysing source code to generate UML diagrams as "reverse engineering". See List of UML tools.
Although UML is one approach to providing "reverse engineering" more recent advances in international standards activities have resulted in the development of the Knowledge Discovery Metamodel (KDM). This standard delivers an ontology for the intermediate (or abstracted) representation of programming language constructs and their interrelationships. An Object Management Group standard (on its way to becoming an ISO standard as well), KDM has started to take hold in industry with the development of tools and analysis environments which can deliver the extraction and analysis of source, binary, and byte code. For source code analysis, KDM's granular standards' architecture enables the extraction of software system flows (data, control, & call maps), architectures, and business layer knowledge (rules, terms, process). The standard enables the use of a common data format (XMI) enabling the correlation of the various layers of system knowledge for either detailed analysis (e.g. root cause, impact) or derived analysis (e.g. business process extraction). Although efforts to represent language constructs can be never-ending given the number of languages, the continuous evolution of software languages and the development of new languages, the standard does allow for the use of extensions to support the broad language set as well as evolution. KDM is compatible with UML, BPMN, RDF and other standards enabling migration into other environments and thus leverage system knowledge for efforts such as software system transformation and enterprise business layer analysis.
Reverse engineering of protocols
Protocols are sets of rules that describe message formats and how messages are exchanged (i.e., the protocol state-machine). Accordingly, the problem of protocol reverse-engineering can be partitioned into two subproblems; message format and state-machine reverse-engineering.
The message formats have traditionally been reverse-engineered through a tedious manual process, which involved analysis of how protocol implementations process messages, but recent research proposed a number of automatic solutions. Typically, these automatic approaches either group observed messages into clusters using various clustering analyses, or emulate the protocol implementation tracing the message processing.
There has been less work on reverse-engineering of state-machines of protocols. In general, the protocol state-machines can be learned either through a process of offline learning, which passively observes communication and attempts to build the most general state-machine accepting all observed sequences of messages, and online learning, which allows interactive generation of probing sequences of messages and listening to responses to those probing sequences. In general, offline learning of small state-machines is known to be NP-complete, while online learning can be done in polynomial time. An automatic offline approach has been demonstrated by Comparetti et al. and an online approach very recently by Cho et al.
Other components of typical protocols, like encryption and hash functions, can be reverse-engineered automatically as well. Typically, the automatic approaches trace the execution of protocol implementations and try to detect buffers in memory holding unencrypted packets.