Reverse engineering (RE) is the process of discovering the technological principles of a device, object or system through analysis of its structure, function and operation. It often involves taking something (e.g., a mechanical device, electronic component, or software program) apart and analyzing its workings in detail to be used in maintenance, or to try to make a new device or program that does the same thing without utilizing any physical part of the original.
Reverse engineering has its origins in the analysis of hardware for commercial or military advantage . The purpose is to deduce design decisions from end products with little or no additional knowledge about the procedures involved in the original production. The same techniques are currently being researched for application to legacy software systems, not for industrial or defense ends, but rather to replace incorrect, incomplete, or otherwise unavailable documentation.
Reasons for reverse engineering:
As computer-aided design (CAD) has become more popular, reverse engineering has become a viable method to create a 3D virtual model of an existing physical part for use in 3D CAD, CAM, CAE or other software. The reverse-engineering process involves measuring an object and then reconstructing it as a 3D model. The physical object can be measured using 3D scanning technologies like CMMs, laser scanners, structured light digitizers or computed tomography. The measured data alone, usually represented as a point cloud, lacks topological information and is therefore often processed and modeled into a more usable format such as a triangular-faced mesh, a set of NURBS surfaces or a CAD model. Reverse engineering is also used by businesses to bring existing physical geometry into digital product development environments, to make a digital 3D record of their own products or to assess competitors' products. It is used to analyze, for instance, how a product works, what it does, and what components it consists of, estimate costs, and identify potential patent infringement, etc.
Value engineering is a related activity also used by businesses. It involves deconstructing and analysing products, but the objective is to find opportunities for cost cutting.
The term reverse engineering as applied to software means different things to different people, prompting Chikofsky and Cross to write a paper researching the various uses and defining a taxonomy. From their paper, they state, "Reverse engineering is the process of analyzing a subject system to create representations of the system at a higher level of abstraction." It can also be seen as "going backwards through the development cycle". In this model, the output of the implementation phase (in source code form) is reverse-engineered back to the analysis phase, in an inversion of the traditional waterfall model. Reverse engineering is a process of examination only: the software system under consideration is not modified (which would make it reengineering). Software anti-tamper technology is used to deter both reverse engineering and reengineering of proprietary software and software-powered systems. In practice, two main types of reverse engineering emerge. In the first case, source code is already available for the software, but higher-level aspects of the program, perhaps poorly documented or documented but no longer valid, are discovered. In the second case, there is no source code available for the software, and any efforts towards discovering one possible source code for the software are regarded as reverse engineering. This second usage of the term is the one most people are familiar with. Reverse engineering of software can make use of the clean room design technique to avoid copyright infringement.
On a related note, black box testing in software engineering has a lot in common with reverse engineering. The tester usually has the API, but their goals are to find bugs and undocumented features by bashing the product from outside.
Other purposes of reverse engineering include security auditing, removal of copy protection ("cracking"), circumvention of access restrictions often present in consumer electronics, customization of embedded systems (such as engine management systems), in-house repairs or retrofits, enabling of additional features on low-cost "crippled" hardware (such as some graphics card chipsets), or even mere satisfaction of curiosity.
The Certified Reverse Engineering Analyst (CREA) is a certification provided by the IACRB that certifies candidates are proficient in reverse engineering software.
This process is sometimes termed Reverse Code Engineering, or RCE. As an example, decompilation of binaries for the Java platform can be accomplished using Jad. One famous case of reverse engineering was the first non-IBM implementation of the PC BIOS which launched the historic IBM PC compatible industry that has been the overwhelmingly dominant computer hardware platform for many years. An example of a group that reverse-engineers software for enjoyment is CORE which stands for "Challenge Of Reverse Engineering". Reverse engineering of software is protected in the U.S. by the fair use exception in copyright law. The Samba software, which allows systems that are not running Microsoft Windows systems to share files with systems that are, is a classic example of software reverse engineering, since the Samba project had to reverse-engineer unpublished information about how Windows file sharing worked, so that non-Windows computers could emulate it. The Wine project does the same thing for the Windows API, and OpenOffice.org is one party doing this for the Microsoft Office file formats. The ReactOS project is even more ambitious in its goals, as it strives to provide binary (ABI and API) compatibility with the current Windows OSes of the NT branch, allowing software and drivers written for Windows to run on a clean-room reverse-engineered GPL open-source counterpart.
Reverse engineering of software can be accomplished by various methods. The three main groups of software reverse engineering are
Reverse engineering is an invasive and destructive form of analyzing a smart card. The attacker grinds away layer by layer of the smart card and takes pictures with an electron microscope. With this technique, it is possible to reveal the complete hardware and software part of the smart card. The major problem for the attacker is to bring everything into the right order to find out how everything works. Engineers try to hide keys and operations by mixing up memory positions, for example, busscrambling. In some cases, it is even possible to attach a probe to measure voltages while the smart card is still operational. Engineers employ sensors to detect and prevent this attack.  It takes very high effort to break a smart card used for payment, and the technical equipment is only available to large chip producers. Additionally, the gain is low because of other security mechanisms like shadow accounts.
Reverse engineering is often used by militaries in order to copy other nations' technologies, devices or information that have been obtained by regular troops in the fields or by intelligence operations. It was often used during the Second World War and the Cold War. Well-known examples from WWII and later include
In the United States and many other countries, even if an artifact or process is protected by trade secrets, reverse-engineering the artifact or process is often lawful as long as it is obtained legitimately. Patents, on the other hand, need a public disclosure of an invention, and therefore, patented items do not necessarily have to be reverse-engineered to be studied. One common motivation of reverse engineers is to determine whether a competitor's product contains patent infringements or copyright infringements.
Reverse engineering software or hardware systems which is done for the purposes of interoperability (for example, to support undocumented file formats or undocumented hardware peripherals) is mostly believed to be legal, though patent owners often contest this and attempt to stifle any reverse engineering of their products for any reason.