Malware analysis is not always easy to perform, but this article is intended to offer an understanding of what is involved in malware analysis.
Before learning about malware analysis and its types and stages, let’s first understand what is malware with this quick overview.
What is Malware?
Malware is a kind of intrusive software that damages and destroys computer systems, servers, host systems, or networks. It is a catch-all term for all types of malicious software that is specifically intended to cause damage or exploit any programmable device, network, or service. Viruses, worms, adware, spyware, trojan viruses, and ransomware are various types of malware threats.
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What is Malware Analysis?
Malware analysis is the process of detecting and reducing potential threats in a website, application, or server. It is a crucial process that ensures computer security as well as the safety and security of an organization with regard to sensitive information. Malware analysis addresses vulnerabilities before they get out of hand.
If you are looking at it more simply, malware analysis can be considered as the process of understanding the behavior and the intended use of a suspicious file or URL. The more you know about the suspicious file, the better it will help to mitigate the threat, if any.
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Key Benefits of Malware Analysis
Malware analysis is of immense use to Security Analysts and incident responders. Here are some key benefits of the process:
- Identifying the source of the attack
- Determining the damage from a security threat
- Identifying a malware’s exploitation level, vulnerability, and appropriate patching preparations
- Triaging the incidents according to the level of severity of the threat in a practical manner
- Uncovering hidden Indicators of Compromise (IOC) that need to be blocked
- Improving the efficacy of IOC, alerts, and notifications
- Enriching context when trying to uncover threats
Types of Malware Analysis
There are three types of malware analysis that can be conducted:
- Static malware analysis
- Dynamic malware analysis
- Hybrid malware analysis
Static Malware Analysis
Static malware analysis examines files for signs of malicious intent. A basic static analysis does not require a malware code that is actually running. It is useful for revealing malicious infrastructure, packed files, or libraries.
In this kind of malware analysis, the technical indicators like file names, hashes, strings such as IP addresses, domains, and file header data are identified. Various tools like disassemblers and network analyzers have the ability to observe the malware without running it. These tools can gather information on how the particular malware works.
Since static malware analysis does not run the malware code, there can be malicious runtime behavior in some sophisticated malware, which can go undetected. For example, a file that generates a string and downloads a malicious file depending on the dynamic string. The malware could go undetected if a basic static malware analysis is used. In these cases, dynamic analysis is more helpful in getting a complete understanding of the file behavior.
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Dynamic Malware Analysis
In dynamic malware analysis, a suspected malicious code is run in a safe environment called a sandbox. This isolated virtual machine is a closed system that allows security experts to observe the malware closely in action without the risk of system or network infection. This technique provides deeper visibility of the threat and its true nature.
Automated sandboxing, as a secondary benefit, eliminates the time, which otherwise would have been spent for reverse engineering a file to discover a malicious code.
Dynamic analysis can be a challenge, especially against smart adversaries who know sandboxes will be used eventually. So, as a form of deception, adversaries hide their code in a way that it remains dormant until specific conditions are met. The code will run only then.
Hybrid Malware Analysis
We already know now that basic static analysis isn’t reliable when the malware has a more sophisticated code, and sophisticated malware are sometimes, able to avoid detection by sandbox technology. Combining both types of malware analysis techniques offers the best of both approaches.
Hybrid analysis can detect hidden malicious code, and extract many more IOCs by statically and previously unseen code.It is capable of detecting unknown threats, even from the most sophisticated malware.
The hybrid analysis applies static analysis to the data that is generated by behavioral analysis. Consider a piece of malicious code that runs and causes some changes in memory. The dynamic analysis will be able to detect that and Analysts will immediately know to perform static analysis on that memory dump. This will result in more IOCs and exposed zero-day exploits.
Difference Between Static and Dynamic Malware Analysis
Static and dynamic analysis has already been defined above. We will not get into it further. Instead, we will be drawing up a comparison between the two depending on certain factors.
Static malware analysis analyzes a malware sample without executing it thus, eliminating the need for an Analyst through each and every phase. It observes the behavior of the sample and determines its capability and the extent to which it can exert damage to the system.
Dynamic analysis, on the other hand, performs analysis using the behavior and actions of the malware sample, which means that it works during the execution of the code with proper monitoring.
Static analysis involves signature analysis of the malware binary file. The binary file has a unique identifier and can be reverse-engineered with the help of a disassembler such as IDA that converts the machine-executable code into assembly language code. Some of the techniques used in this type of malware analysis are virus scanning, packer detection, file fingerprinting, debugging, and memory dumping.
Dynamic analysis involves a sandbox environment so that analyzing the behavior of malware while running the program won’t affect other systems. Commercial sandboxes replace manual analysis with automated analysis.
Static analysis has a signature-based approach when it comes to malware detection and analysis. The unique identifier in malware is a sequence of bytes. The signatures are scanned using different patterns. The antimalware programs that are signature-based are effective only against common malware. These are ineffective when it comes to sophisticated and advanced malware. This is where dynamic malware analysis comes into the picture.
The dynamic analysis doesn’t have a signature-based approach. Instead, it uses a behavior-based approach that determines the functionality of the malware. It involves studying the actions performed by the malware.
Malware Analysis Use Cases
More and more sophisticated techniques are being used by adversaries to evade traditional detection mechanisms. Threats can be more effectively detected through deep behavioral analysis by identifying shared code, malicious functionality, or infrastructure.
Additionally, malware analysis results in the extraction of IOCs. These IOCs can then be fed into threat intelligence platforms (TIPs), SEIMs, and security orchestration tools for alerting teams to related threats in the future.
Threat hunters can use the behavior and artifacts that are exposed by malware analysis to find similar activities, like accessing a particular network connection, domain, or port. Searching firewall, proxy logs, or SIEM data can help find similar threats.
Threat Alerts and Triage
The outputs of malware analysis offer higher-fidelity alerts early in the attack life cycle thus saving time by triaging the results of these alerts.
The objective of the incident response (IR) team is to perform root cause analysis, determine the impact, and successfully offer remediation and recovery solutions. Malware analysis helps in the efficacy of this effort.
All industry and academic malware researchers apply malware analysis to achieve insights on the latest techniques, tools, and exploits used by adversaries.
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Stages of Malware Analysis
Let’s quickly take a look at the four stages of malware analysis:
Static Properties Analysis
When we say static properties, it means strings that are embedded in the malware code, the header details, embedded resources, metadata, hashes, etc. This type of data may be sufficient to create IOCs and can be acquired rather quickly due to the non-execution of the program during the process.
The insights that are generated using the static properties analysis can determine whether a deeper investigation with more comprehensive techniques is required as well as the steps that should be followed next.
Interactive Behavior Analysis
Interactive behavioral analysis helps observe and interact with a sample of malware that is running in a lab. Analysts try to gain an understanding of the sample’s file system, registry, process, and network activities. Memory forensics is conducted to study how malware uses memory. Suspected capabilities of the malware are then tested out in a simulated environment.
Behavioral analysis requires an Analyst who possesses advanced skills as the entire process can be time-consuming and complicated. The analysis cannot be performed effectively without the help of automated tools.
Fully Automated Analysis
A fully automated analysis assesses suspicious files quickly with a simple approach. The analysis is helpful in determining potential repercussions in case malware infiltrates the network. It then generates an easy-to-read report with quick solutions for security teams. It is the best way to process malware at scale.
Manual Code Reversing
In the manual code reversing stage, Analysts use debuggers, compilers, disassemblers, and other specialized tools to reverse-engineer the code. This will help decode encrypted data, determine the logic behind the malware algorithm, and uncover any unexhibited hidden capabilities of the malware.
Code reversing requires expertise and rare skills. Executing it takes an extensive amount of time. For these very reasons, this step is often skipped thus, missing out on plenty of valuable insights into the nature of the malware.
There are a number of malware analysis tools that can aid Security Analysts in reverse engineering malware samples. With around 200,000 malware samples being caught every day through malware analysis, it is intended to help keep potentially malicious malware attacks and prevent significant damage control.
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