US students get cracking on Chinese malware code

Students at Mississippi State University will analyze samples used in a wide-ranging, seven-year hacking campaign

Wesley McGrew, a research assistant at Mississippi State University, may be among the few people thrilled with the latest grim report into a years-long hacking campaign against dozens of U.S. companies and organizations.

But McGrew's interest is purely academic: he teaches a reverse engineering class at the university, training 14 computer science and engineering students how to analyze malicious software.

[ALSO: The future of malware]

Part of the curriculum for his class will involve analyzing malware samples identified in a report from security vendor Mandiant, which alleged a branch of the Chinese military called "Unit 61398" ran a massive hacking campaign that struck 141 organizations over the last seven years.

Mandiant's report is fueling a diplomatic crisis between the U.S. and China, but it will also provide a learning opportunity for future computer security experts.

"Oh, it's fantastic," said McGrew, who will defend his doctoral thesis on the security of SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) systems next month. "The importance of having malware that has an impact on the economic advantage of one company over another or the security of a nation is priceless. This is exactly what they should be learning to look at."

Mandiant published more than 1,000 MD5 hashes for malware it linked to the campaign. An MD5 hash is a mathematical representation of a file based on its size. No two files have the same MD5 hash unless they are exactly the same, which makes it a good way to identify files.

In an interview late Wednesday night, McGrew said Mandiant also described "families" of related malware used in the campaigns but did not link those to the MD5 hashes. He is working to analyze some of the malware files to link them to certain malware families, which he detailed on his blog.

There are also other efforts to find out precisely what malware has been used. The website VirusShare.com is an online repository for malware where researchers can submit and obtain samples.

Since the Mandiant report was published, VirusShare.com has seen an influx of samples with the same MD5 hashes. McGrew said that in the last day or so, there are now 281 matches on VirusShare.com for the 1,007 MD5 hashes published by Mandiant.

McGrew said he is particularly interested in samples that are not too complicated for his students, who have basic malware analysis skills. The blend of malware linked to the attacks ranges in sophistication, he said. Some of the samples are detected by antivirus software and aren't particularly complex.

Attackers are less likely to use their more advanced malware against a target if a simpler one suffices, since it could be detected and blocked in the future, McGrew said. Other samples, however, still aren't detected by some security software.

McGrew's lesson plan will include supplying the students with malware samples and asking them about certain functions.

"By providing them with real malware samples and teaching them all the proper safety procedures for handling, we allow them to have the expertise of looking at real malicious software," he said.

Many of his students are on scholarship programs that will require them to work for a certain time for government agencies. Mississippi State University, based in Starkville, is part of the National Science Foundation's Scholarship for Service program. The scholarship pays for the last two years of a student's degree in exchange for the student taking a job revolving around security with a federal government agency.

The university is also part of the U.S. Department of Defense's Information Assurance Scholarship Program, established in 2001, that requires students to spend one year in government service for every year they received funds. The idea behind the program is to increase U.S. expertise in cybersecurity in a field that increasingly demanding more and more skill people.

"We have a room with highly motivated students absolutely looking to get into this field," McGrew said. "It puts them in positions that the country is desperately trying to fill right now."

Send news tips and comments to jeremy_kirk@idg.com. Follow me on Twitter: @jeremy_kirk

Editors' Picks
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies