A comprehensive introduction to malware analysis

As the world of cyber thrives with a dazzling speed, almost every aspect of our life in the 21st century depends undeniably on the practicality of this IT-based world. More than 4.5 billion users utilize the facilities of the internet network through about 2 billion active websites globally.

But besides the vast advantages this world offers, the possible dangers of the cyber world have risen to become one of the biggest threats to the safety and growth of both businesses and individuals. One of the most famous types of these dangers is widely known as malware. Malware is an umbrella term usually referring to a variety of software with malicious behavior, namely viruses, Trojans, ransomware, backdoors, and similar specimen.

As the most expensive type of cyber threat, a single malware attack can cost a company up to $2.6 million on average and stop the R&D team’s progress of an organization for more than 50 days, according to researches. To confront this issue, security analysts exert a type of cybersecurity approach called malware analysis.

What is malware analysis?

Malware analysis is the process of studying and examining the behavior of a probable malicious file or URL. The malware analyst job is to ascertain the real origin, purpose, and practicality of the file and report it. To perform successful and accurate malware analysis, the cybersecurity analyst of an organization has to avail himself of a set of skills and knowledge about malware which we will talk about in this article. 

Malware analysis goals

The prime goal of malware analysis is to gather as much information as possible about malware. This information helps the cyber analyst with coming up with the right incident response plan and improves the defense perimeter of the organization.

This method also helps an organization to identify, confront, and neutralize a malware threat before damaging its assets. Furthermore, by applying the results of malware analysis and inserting it into the SIEM of the organization, the chance of future attacks by similar approaches reduces considerably. 

How does it benefit an organization?

Malware analysis provides a security analyst with a range of benefits. For instance, by using this approach, you can easily prioritize the incidents by security level. Moreover, it enables you to discover more IOCs (indicators of comprise) and ameliorate the efficiency of your IOC alerts. Last but not least, malware analysis can be very helpful in the process of threat hunting as well.

The 4 stages of malware analysis

The process of malware analysis can be described in 4 stages. Each of these stages requires a higher level of skill set and expertise to be performed as it goes to the next. 

1. Fully automated analysis: 

Using automated tools such as ZeroWine, Sandbox analyzers, and REMnux is the first step in analyzing malware. These programs quickly study the basic behavior of the malware and ascertain the possible outcome of running the malware on the system. Obviously, the amount of information obtained from fully-automated tools is not comparable to the results of a human analyst. However, it can be helpful to study a bulk of malware. Furthermore, it allows the analyst to prioritize the threats and spend his/her time on the most important malwares in the process.

2. Static analysis:

In this stage, the analyst studies the static properties of malware such as file names, hash, IP addresses, and the metadata such as creation date. Analyzing these basic properties may be helpful to determine whether the file is considered malicious without actually running the code of the malware. Virus total is another tool that can come in handy in this stage and help the analyst to decide whether the file needs further analysis or not.

3. Interactive behavior analysis:

In this stage, the analyst creates a virtual isolated lab and infects it with the malware in order to study its interactive behavior regarding its surrounding environment. The analyst is able to obtain valuable information from this stage such as the malware’s file system, registry, and network activity. Furthermore he can perform memory forensic on the malware by using the compiled data from previous analyses.

4. Manual code reversing:

The last stage of malware analysis requires an advanced set of skills and experience in the field to perform. In this stage, the analyst should apply a reverse-engineering approach to the comprising code of the malware. Most of the time this effort is performed by the use of a disassembler and a debugger and can also be aided by a decompiler and memory forensics. Reverse-coding can add priceless information to the report as some aspects of a specimen are impossible to assess without the code being accurately examined. Decoding the data that was encrypted by the malware or determining the logic behind the domain generation algorithm of the sample is among this range of info. 

After all, the process of malware analysis is not always a clear path of singular stages that work for each malware. In fact, a malware analyst should be equipped with a set of skills to combine any of these stages as it goes into the process when necessary to perform a proper analysis and reach adequate data.

Fields of use:

The first broad use of the malware analysis process is to use the IOCs obtained and the data to create a data storage which enables the system to quickly identify and alert further similar threats in the future. Security machine learning, SIEM, and Threat intelligence platforms are the parts of the security perimeter that can be enriched by the data obtained from malware analysis directly. 

In addition to that, malware analysis can improve the efficiency of the Incident response considerably as it helps the analyst to provide an adequate root cause and also come up with suitable remediation faster. Besides, many malicious activities are shared between malwares and other threats to an organization that makes malware analysis data quite valuable to threat hunters as well.

Finally, the importance of the malware analysis is more observed when we consider the fact that malicious attacks, threats, and software are developing non-stop and are becoming more and more complicated to identify and stop. Thus, the need for approaches such as malware analysis is completely tangible for a cyber-security expert to gather valuable information and use it to keep up with the speed of malicious behavior progress.

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