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The Importance of anti-debugging for application security

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By Prateek Panda


In a world where IP theft, misuse, tampering and even repackaging of applications are on the rise, it is important for businesses powered by applications to do whatever it takes to secure their brand and their assets—as well as their users.

Application shielding as a reliable defense measure is an important consideration for businesses with products exposed to untrusted and unknown environments. There is often little a business can do to create a secure environment and prevent risk for its client‑side applications.

While the environment’s security cannot be guaranteed, fortunately, there are methods to shield applications, both static and dynamic, and raise their security posture. One of the primary methods to harden an application’s defense is a process called anti‑debugging.

But first, let’s take a look at the role of debuggers in anti-debugging. Debuggers are typically used in a program to generate an interrupt when an error or a bug is found in the application. Debuggers are used by legitimate software engineers to detect bugs in the application but they can also act as a powerful tool to help hackers target and attack an application

What is an Anti-debugging?

Anti-debugging is a set of techniques used within the code of an application to detect and prevent the act of debugging. This stops attackers from dynamically running applications, trying to understand how they work and changing the behavior of certain features or checks within the application. Anti-debugging techniques include observation and detection of small differences in the memory, the operating system, process information, and latency that arise when a debugger is attached to an application and compared to when there is no debugger present.

How to Prevent Debugging?

While there are a few different methods of anti-debugging, one of the primary methods used is called modified code anti-debugging. This technique inserts code in several places of the application to actively search for breakpoints, debuggers or debugging techniques. Detection of these breakpoints can be obtained by analyzing the entire application operation process for modifications in code while comparing it to the expected values or norms. The discrepancies detected raises an alarm that can result in a deeper investigation.

Intertrust’s anti-debugging capabilities demonstrated in our patented security product whiteCryption® Code Protection™ include inserting numerous anti-debug checks into your protected application. These checks take into account the unique aspects of the target platform and specific indicators that may identify the presence of a debugger.

When a debugger or suspicious activity is detected there are multiple actions of defense that can be carried out, such as corrupting the program state to crash the application, or even configure your application to execute a custom callback function defined in the source code. You could even choose whether the program state should be corrupted or the application should be left running.

Anti-debugging checks use kernel syscalls, thereby bypassing user-mode hooks that the hacker may have inserted, forcing the attacker to modify their kernel, which significantly decreases the chances for a successful attack.

Boosting Application Defense

It is no doubt that anti-debugging is an effective method to protect your application from today’s dynamic attacks. While it makes it significantly difficult to gain access to the application’s code, there are further techniques to increase the security posture of your applications. Modifying features or security checks, combining anti-debugging along with other application shielding techniques like code obfuscation, binary packing, and diversification can boost your application defense to the point of making it next to impenetrable.

Get in touch with Intertrust to see how we help secure Fortune 500 businesses across the globe. Discover how our advanced security techniques can harden and secure applications, and stop theft or prevent manipulation of your software application code and proprietary data.

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About Prateek Panda

Prateek Panda is Director of Marketing at Intertrust Technologies and leads global marketing for Intertrust’s application shielding and device identity solutions. His expertise in product marketing and product management stem from his experience as the founder of a cybersecurity company with products in the mobile application security space.

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