BlackHoodie and what came after

The demand for information security specialists will experience a growth by more than 50% through 2018, thus our industry is in massive need of talented engineers. On the other hand, the field is rather devoid of female engineers, who seem to frequently scare away from the professions in the security sector.

To encourage female engineers to step up to the challenge of reverse engineering, in 2015 Marion Marschalek decided to organize a free reverse engineering workshop for women, dedicatedly inviting females only. The motivation behind this move was to give female engineers the prospect of a comfortable learning environment; to make them feel entitled to take part, rather, than scare them away. Reverse engineering is considered one of the more complex fields of computer science, good learning material is not always freely available, a steep learning curve in the beginning demotivates a lot of students to get their heads around the materia. Thus the idea to host an event which would support one of infosec’s minorities, the ladies.

The workshop took place in September at University of Applied Sciences St. Pölten, Lower Austria. It was hosted on a weekend, in order to ensure a maximum number of participants could take part.

A total of 15 participants fought their way to rural Austria, which is impressive considering the overall scarcity of female engineers at common security events. It is evident that hosting such an event as a female-only workshop encouraged more female participants to join than there would have been at a general training course. The attendees came traveling from several different countries, many of them on their own expenses.

Prior to the workshop the participants had to complete 4 preparational exercises, in order to familiarize themselves with general concepts of malware reverse engineering. The topic itself is not easy to comprehend, more over, learning to reverse engineer binaries on a single weekend is surely not feasible. The preparational tasks were meant to instruct the participants on how to set up their own malware analysis environment, also the basic concepts of static and dynamic analysis were to be internalized. The tasks included several exercises to complete, but also a list of reading material to cover topics such as malware anti-analysis and runtime packers. Finally the participants had to perform first reverse engineering tasks by steering a debugger through a set of minimalistic binaries.

The workshop itself started off with high goals. During the designated weekend the attendees were confronted with a sample of real world malware, protected by a custom runtime packer and a number of anti-analysis measures. The binary itself was a variant of Win32.Upatre and rather compact, generally suitable for beginners, yet showing all the traits that make everyday malware. Still, a single weekend is a rather short timeframe, thus the attendees were required to put in a lot of energy; and concentration, guts and endurance. After a short recap of prior exercises the class started out on analysing and bypassing protection measures of the malware. These included self modifying code, a breakpoint detection trick and execution of code within a window handler function. After the protection layer the malware entered a decompression phase, followed by the import table reconstruction commonly performed by runtime packed binaries.

The final payload of the malware, a function to download further executable content from a remote server, was left as a homework due to timing constraints. Nevertheless, the attendees showed a lot of interest during the training and were an extraordinarily eager class.

Following the principle that easy content just won’t stick, the training weekend was intentionally not designed to be quickly digested. The attendees got a crashcourse on malware reversing, from where they were free to go on on their own to explore further challenges. The primary intention of the workshop was of course to familiarize the participants with binary analysis, furthermore though they were supposed to take away the credo “yes, I can” when looking at complex tasks in the future.

Indeed, now half a year after the workshop the former BlackHoodie attendees have shown marvellous success stories. Two of them have taken on their first reverse engineering positions with Quarkslab in Paris. One did her first malware research talk at Botconf last year, presenting on botnet analysis, and is going for the next speaking engagement soon; one spoke at RootedCon this year about iOS malware attacking non-jailbroken devices. Two ladies decided to pick up RE as topic for their thesis, one focusing on analyzing threat actor TTPs, one on analyzing the NDIS stack relying on memory images. Finally, an eager participant collected her first two CVEs this year by exploiting BMC Logic’s BladeLogic Server Automation product, presenting the findings at Troopers conference. Needless to say, among the participants are seasoned engineers, who excel in cryptography, software development, incident response, and security management every day.

We have high hopes last year’s BlackHoodie attendees keep up the good work and we are looking forward to the next edition, coming up in fall 2016. The next event will be hosted by Marion Marschalek and Katja Hahn in Bochum at the G DATA Campus. It will again be free of charge and hopefully encourage even more female engineers to wreck their brains over binary analysis.