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Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

In March the National Security Agency released an internal malware research tool for free to the public, a first for the secretive agency. Six months later, by most indications, the release is an even bigger event than the NSA thought.

Why it matters: Some aspects of researching malware have long required expensive software. The release of Ghidra, the NSA tool, has profoundly changed the field, opening it up to students, part-timers and hobbyists who otherwise couldn't afford to participate.

It's been a good six months for Ghidra. The software has been downloaded more than 500,000 times from GitHub.

  • "We had a bet on how many downloads it would be," Brian Knighton, senior researcher at the NSA, told Axios. "We were off by quite a factor."
  • Ghidra also netted the NSA two nominations for "Pwnie" awards at the typically NSA-adverse DEF CON hacker conference this week.
  • The NSA was also pleasantly surprised with the number of outside developers modifying code and creating new features for the now open-source program.
  • The toolkit is popular enough that the NSA now offers touring classes on Ghidra for colleges and universities.

The big picture: It's still too early to judge Ghidra's success based on its use in published malware research or incidents in which hackers have been thwarted. But based on engagement of new and old researchers alike, that kind of evidence seems likely to follow.

The background: Ghidra is a reverse-engineering tool that allows researchers to translate computer-executable programs into human-readable programming language commands.

When Ghidra was released, observers speculated that the purpose of the release was to create a global research explosion to counter national threats.

  • That was certainly one NSA goal. But another that's been overlooked is cutting down the training time for NSA recruitment.
  • “Now we can hire someone who has already used Ghidra,” said Knighton.

Knighton will present an update on Ghidra at the Black Hat cybersecurity conference Thursday, including new NSA-developed features and answers to some of the lingering questions about the program.

  • “We’ll explain why we called it 'Ghidra',” said Knighton, which is still an open question, beyond the fact that King Ghidra is a formidable rival of Godzilla.
  • More practically, the conference talk will address the choice to design the program in Java, a programming language that some experts now view as cumbersome and dated.

Go deeper

Miriam Kramer, author of Space
23 mins ago - Science

Biden's military space future

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

President-elect Joe Biden should anticipate major and minor conflicts in space from even the earliest days of his presidency.

The big picture: President Donald Trump's military and civil space policies are well-documented, but Biden's record and views on space are less clear.

Updated 1 hour ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Health: Coronavirus may have been in U.S. in December 2019, study finds — Hospital crisis deepens as holiday season nears.
  2. Politics: Bipartisan group of senators unveil $908 billion COVID stimulus proposalFDA chief was called to West Wing to explain why agency hasn't moved faster on vaccine — The words that actually persuade people on the pandemic
  3. Vaccine: Moderna to file for FDA emergency use authorizationVaccinating rural America won't be easy — Being last in the vaccine queue is young people's next big COVID test.
  4. States: Cuomo orders emergency hospital protocols as New York's COVID capacity dwindles.
  5. World: European regulators to assess first COVID-19 vaccine by Dec. 29
  6. 🎧 Podcast: The state of play of the top vaccines.

Bipartisan group of senators unveils $908 billion COVID stimulus proposal

Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) in the Capitol in 2018. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

A bipartisan group of senators on Tuesday proposed a $908 billion coronavirus stimulus package, in one of the few concrete steps toward COVID relief made by Congress in several months.

Why it matters: Recent data shows that the economic recovery is floundering as coronavirus cases surge and hospitals threaten to be overwhelmed heading into what is likely to be a grim winter.