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

By , IDG News Service |  Security, education, hacking

Wesley McGrew

Wesley McGrew, a research assistant at Mississippi State University, plans to use malware samples identified in a long-running hacking campaign alleged to be based in China in a course he teaches on reverse software engineering.

Image credit: Mississippi State University

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.

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.

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