12.1 Understanding the Problem of Software Protection

12.1.1 Problem

You are considering adding protection to your software to help prevent crackers from illegally using your software, discovering how your software works, modifying the way in which your software works, or for a variety of other possible reasons. Before investing the time and effort, you would like to understand more about software protection.

12.1.2 Solution

The problem of protection boils down to determining whether the operating conditions for the software are met. This can mean that the user is allowed to run the software, that the machine is licensed to run the software, that the software has not been modified, or that the software is running in a reasonably secure environment (e.g., no debuggers are present).

There are a number of different approaches to software protection:

Input validation

Critical code or data is provided as input to the program, and the correctness of this input determines whether the program will execute correctly. This input can be a key supplied by the user or a "key file" generated during the install process, often used to decrypt portions of the file at runtime. Input validation can be bypassed by obtaining valid input or by removing the dependency on the input.

Hardware validation

A piece of hardware is used to determine whether the program will execute correctly, effectively tying the program to a single machine. This usually involves storing critical code or data on a piece of dedicated hardware, checking hardware serial numbers such as those stored on hard drives and CPUs, or checking the value of the real-time clock. Hardware validation can be bypassed by removing the hardware dependency or by emulating the hardware itself.

Network validation

A remote server determines whether the program will execute and provides critical code or data upon successful validation. Network validation can be bypassed by removing the network dependency or by running the application on a controlled local network.

Environment validation

A check of the local system is performed by examining the memory and disk drives of the system, querying operating system variables, and performing architecture-specific checks to determine whether the environment is safe for execution. These checks can be benign (such as ensuring that the minimum amount of memory or CPU speed is met) or aggressive (such as searching for the presence of a debugger). Environment validation can be bypassed by running the software in an emulator, removing the dependency on the environment check, or modifying the signatures and behavior of software and hardware components on the local system.

Integrity validation

The software examines itself and its components in memory or on disk to determine whether it has been modified since compilation. This often takes the form of producing a digital signature for the software and comparing it with a valid signature, although the comparison may be eliminated by using the signature, or a transformation thereof, as critical code or data during the execution of the software.

Each of these approaches has its advantages, and each has its flaws. Input validation is trivial to implement and sells well because of the illusion that strong encryption provides strong protection. However, it is trivial to detect, and the input can always be intercepted during a valid execution of the software in order to crack the protection. Hardware validation is difficult to bypass and is effective against debugging and disassembly of the software. On the downside, it is expensive, difficult to implement effectively, and requires that the hardware itself be trusted, which is virtually never the case. Network validation is also proof against debugging and disassembly because all validation is performed remotely and required code or data is supplied by the server upon validation. However, it requires that the network itself be trusted (which is not necessarily the case on a local network with no Internet access) and can be broken once a valid execution of the software has been monitored. Environment validation is effective at demanding more skill from a potential attacker. It is trivial to detect, relatively easy to bypass, and very costly in terms of development and debugging time. Integrity validation is simple to implement and addresses the issue at the core of software protection. It is also easy to spot and can quickly be bypassed when the signatures used to verify integrity are stored locally.

There is no single, correct technique. The best results are obtained by combining a number of different techniques: for example, using the correct signature from an integrity validation as the key to decrypt portions of the software during an input validation. It is difficult to name any specific technique, or even a combination of techniques, that can be considered a reliable protection mechanism.

12.1.3 Discussion

The key to writing a good software protection mechanism is in knowing and not underestimating the typical software protection cracker, and assessing the goals and costs of protecting against attack. The threat of protection crackers

Software is rarely cracked for profit. It is cracked because the protection is trivial ("Why crack it? Because I can"), because the software itself is in demand ("crack requests" and "zero-day warez"), or because the protection is interesting, often sheerly because it is difficult (this is "reverse engineering" for sport). Protecting against every type of attacker is impossible. Instead, we recommend that you determine which type of attacker poses the greatest threat.

If your software is popular and has a high demand, you will want to defend against the "zero-day" cracker by making the crack itself take a long time to produce. The goal here is to sell more copies of the application in the time between when the software is released and when the crack is produced. The crack can be made to take longer in a variety of ways. Distributing validation checks requires that more locations be patched and thereby increases the complexity of the crack. Delaying the effects of a failed validation increases the probability that incomplete cracks will be produced. Performing supplemental validation checks in areas of the program that are used only by the "power user" of your software can also be effective because most crackers know little or nothing about the software they crack and use only the basic feature set when testing their crack. The rule of thumb for this type of software is to hide the protection itself and provide "red herring" protections, which are slightly difficult to defeat, and which appear to be responsible for the security of the application. Anti-debugger code, hardware validation, and network validation all fail here as they only serve to draw attention to the protection itself.

If your software is released frequently and/or has a low cost or a relatively small user base, you will want to defend against the "because I can" cracker by increasing the skill needed to crack your program. This way, users of your software will find it more reasonable to purchase your software than to crack it. Encrypting or packing the software can do this by including anti-debugger code and by making the code of the protection itself tedious to debug and disassemble (e.g., by incorporating a lot of irrelevant mathematical transformations, breaking the protection up into numerous small subroutines, and repeatedly moving variables around on the stack and in memory). In this situation, there is little need for outwitting the cracker with this type of software, as heavy-duty protection would come at too great a software development cost. Instead, focus your protection efforts on frustrating the casual or inexperienced cracker.

If your software is genuinely valuable and is more likely to be reverse-engineered for its algorithms than cracked for purposes of redistribution, you will want to protect against the "for sport" cracker. In this case, you assume that the value of your software is in its originality, and therefore that it's worth spending large amounts of time and money to protect the software. In such cases, the attacker is usually a professional: the application is run in a sandboxed environment, the system state is backed up to recover from hostile code, and replacement hardware is available in case of failure or to examine a hardware validation protection. Dealing with such attackers requires using every technique at your disposal. Encrypt the application in memory, embed a virtual machine to disassociate machine code instructions from effects in the application, or even embed the core algorithms in custom hardware. The goal of software protection

You must realize that the goal of any specific software protection is not to protect the software but instead to discourage the potential cracker. For any given application that is being protected, you should assume that the cracker has absolute control over the physical and software components of the system on which the application is running. Hardware may be emulated or custom-designed; the operating system and relevant tools may be patched or written from scratch; the network may be an isolated LAN or even a series of loopback devices on a single machine. What this boils down to is that there are few, if any, components of the system that the application can assume to be trusted. This does not mean that writing software protection is futile; rather, it means that you must set realistic goals for the software protection.

The most basic goal of a protection is to increase the level of skill required to crack the application. Anyone with reasonable programming knowledge and a good debugger can trace through an application, find the conditional jumps that a protection makes in the course of its validation, and disable them. A custom packing utility that unpacks only a few instructions at a time, contains a fair amount of anti-debugging code, and reuses code and data addresses to make reconstructing a process image difficult, will require a good deal of experience in protection cracking to defeat.

The ultimate goal is to disguise the nature of the protection itself. Software protections fail primarily because they are easy to spot. When the correct location of a protection is known, the application is 90% cracked. The strongest encryption and the most innovative anti-debugging techniques only serve to lead the cracker directly to your software protection. At that point, it is simply a matter of time before the protection is circumvented. The protection checks should be as unpredictable as possible, so that the cracker finds it difficult to consistently trigger the protection; likewise, the effects of the protection should be hidden, performing long-term code or data corruption that will eventually render the application useless, rather than displaying a message or refusing to execute portions of the application. The cost of software protection

There is obviously a cost associated with developing a software protection. Often, this cost is extremely high in comparison to the benefits obtained. A protection that takes a week to develop will take an hour or two to defeat, while a month of development might produce a protection that takes a day to bypass. In short, the cost for the attacker, in terms of time and skill, is almost always much lower than the cost for the developer.

When planning to implement a protection, keep these three costs in mind:

Development time

Designing and writing an effective software protection is quite difficult. The programmer must have knowledge of assembly language and operating system internals and some experience with protection cracking techniques. Writing and testing a protection takes valuable resources away from application development. As a result, it is tempting to use a third-party software protection rather than to develop one from scratch. This is often a mistake, however, because most commercial software protections are well known to protection crackers and can be bypassed quite easily. If you are using a third-party software protection, be sure to supplement it with additional in-house protection mechanisms.

Debugging difficulty

Any software protection worth using is going to make the application difficult to debug; after all, this is what a protection is designed to prevent. Protections that rely on CPU-specific instructions or data structures internal to the operating system may very well introduce bugs into an otherwise working application. Supporting such applications on a wide variety of hardware and operating systems can be a nightmare, especially with a large number of users actively reporting problems. Once again, these factors may seem to favor the use of third-party software protections; however, as mentioned above, the gain from such protections is often minimal.


Incorporating a software protection into an application often comes at the price of code understandability. Months or years after the protection has been developed, the programmers maintaining the application may no longer be able to understand the protection or the code it protects. This can result in modifications to the application that result in the protection's failing.

The techniques of software protection are often at odds with the goals of code reusability and maintainability. Most methods entail the obfuscation of code and data within the binary, while some attempt to foil the use of standard analysis tools such as debuggers and disassemblers. Because the obfuscation must take place at a binary level rather than a source-code level, and because binary analysis tools work with an assembly language representation of the binary rather than with the original source code, many of the anti-tampering techniques presented are implemented at the assembly-language level. Anti-tampering techniques

This chapter is concerned with preventing software tampering: detecting changes in a compiled application, combating the use of common cracking tools, and preventing the understanding of code and data. There are four main approaches to anti-tampering covered here:

  • Detecting modification to a compiled binary

  • Obfuscating code instructions to impede the understanding of an algorithm

  • Obfuscating data in the program

  • Defeating analysis tools

The techniques provided in this chapter are not exhaustive, but rather are intended to demonstrate the options that are available to the programmer, and to provide easy-to-use code and macros for protecting binaries. Much of the code provided is intended to serve as example code, which, for the sake of clarity, limits the code to the technique being discussed. Secure applications of many of these techniques?such as determining where to store keys and valid checksums, or how to detect the success or failure of a validation check without using a conditional jump?require combining different techniques in a single protection. It is left to the reader to devise these combinations based on the examples provided. Many of the techniques presented here?most notably in the anti-debugger section?do not represent the most innovative of software protection technology because of the complexity of more advanced topics. Those interested in pursuing the topic of software protection are encouraged to read the papers listed in Section 12.1.4, but note that this is by no means an exhaustive list of such literature.

12.1.4 See Also

  • "A Taxonomy of Obfuscating Transformations" by Christian Collberg, Clark Thomborson, and Douglas Low: http://www.cs.arizona.edu/~collberg/Research/Publications/CollbergThomborsonLow97a/index.html

  • "Richey's Anti Cracking FAQ": http://mail.hep.by/mirror/wco/T99/Anticrk.htm

  • "Post-Discovery Strategies" by Seplutra: http://www.cwizardx.com/vdat/tusp0001.htm#antidebug

  • "Protecting Your Programs from Piracy" by Vitas Ramanchauskas: http://mail.hep.by/mirror/wco/T99/Antihack.htm

  • UPX Open Source Executable Packer: http://upx.sourceforge.net