Illustration: National Security Agency

The National Security Agency will release an agency-designed tool to research malware as a free-to-the-public, open source program.

The big picture: The NSA program, known as GHIDRA, is a reverse engineering tool that takes malware and returns the source code used to make it, which otherwise remains inaccessible. That enables researchers and security pros to understand, attribute and even counter the malware.

Why it matters: This small move could be widely disruptive.

  • Reverse engineering tools aren't cheap, costing in the hundreds or thousands of dollars to license. Any group releasing a free, high-quality tool democratizes research into how cyberattacks are waged.
  • But the NSA isn't just any group. Spy agencies typically keep their tech close to the vest, and sharing it in this way changes the dynamic of the NSA's relationship with the American and global public.

GHIDRA will become an open source project, meaning any software developer can use it, modify it and contribute code to help improve the product.

  • Users familiar with GHIDRA describe it as comparable to (some said better than) commercially available offerings, although it may be a little buggy.
  • That's probably not a huge deal to anyone trying to learn or teach the art of malware analysis.
  • "GHIDRA will help level the playing field for cybersecurity personnel, where there is a well-documented skills gap, by providing a tool that they otherwise wouldn't have access to or could afford," said Patrick Miller, a Raytheon researcher and fan of the tool. "This will likely lead to the tool being used in cyber and coding competitions as well as in school curricula."
  • Miller noted that GHIDRA and commercial tools like IDA and Binary Ninja each offer advantages, and serious researchers would find uses for all three programs in their arsenals.

The impact: To the NSA, the move offers a number of advantages.

  • It brings the agency, which has been maligned since the Edward Snowden revelations, out of the shadow and demonstrates a commitment to the public good.
  • Making research easier raises the cost for foreign adversaries to attack Americans, both public and private.
  • It demonstrates NSA confidence in the tools it keeps secret and in those used by its sibling agency, U.S. Cyber Command, in offensive missions.

To answer your least pressing questions: GHIDRA is pronounced "Gee - dra," according to NSA official Rob Joyce, who will be presenting the tool to the RSA cybersecurity conference for its official release later Tuesday. We asked.

  • A Ghidra is (perhaps coincidentally) a character in the Final Fantasy series of video games — an apparent mistranslation of the Japanese word for Hydra.
  • The logo on the NSA site for GHIDRA is a snake with a dragon's head forming an infinity symbol, turning its tail into binary code as it eats it. The binary spells out the first statement programmers traditionally learn how to display: "Hello world."

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