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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Overview of Reverse Engineering

Reverse engineering is the attempt to recapture the top level specification by analyzing the product - I call it an "attempt", because it is not possible in practice, or even in theory, to recover everything in the original specification purely by studying the product.

Reverse engineering is difficult and time consuming, but it is getting easier all the time thanks to IT, for two reasons:
- Firstly, as engineering techniques themselves become more computerised, more of the design is due to the computer. Thus, recognisable blocks of code, or groups of circuit elements on a substrate, often occur in many different designs produced by the same computer program. These are easier to recognise and interpret than a customised product would be.
- Secondly, artificial intelligence techniques for pattern recognition, and for parsing and interpretation, have advanced to the point where these and other structures within a product can be recognized automatically.

Reverse engineering generally consists of the following stages:
1. Analysis of the product
2. Generation of an intermediate level product description
3. Human analysis of the product description to produce a specification
4. Generation of a new product using the specification.
There is thus a chain of events between the underlying design specification and any intermediate level design documents lying behind the product, through the product itself, through the reverse engineered product description, through the reverse engineered specification, and into the new product itself.

Reasons for reverse engineering:

- Interoperability.
- Lost documentation: Reverse engineering often is done because the documentation of a particular device has been lost (or was never written), and the person who built it is no longer available. Integrated circuits often seem to have been designed on obsolete, proprietary systems, which means that the only way to incorporate the functionality into new technology is to reverse-engineer the existing chip and then re-design it.
- Product analysis : To examine how a product works, what components it consists of, estimate costs, and identify potential patent infringement.
- Digital update/correction : To update the digital version (e.g. CAD model) of an object to match an "as-built" condition.
- Security auditing.
- Military or commercial espionage : Learning about an enemy's or competitor's latest research by stealing or capturing a prototype and dismantling it.
- Removal of copy protection, circumvention of access restrictions.
- Creation of unlicensed/unapproved duplicates.
- Academic/learning purposes.
- Curiosity.
- Competitive technical intelligence.
- Learning.

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