Discoverer: Automatic Protocol Reverse Engineering from Network Traces

Weidong Cui, Jayanthkumar Kannan, and Helen J. Wang


Application-level protocol specifications are useful for many security applications, including intrusion prevention and detection that performs deep packet inspection and traffic normalization, and penetration testing that generates network inputs to an application to uncover potential vulnerabilities. However, current practice in deriving protocol specifications is mostly manual. In this paper, we present Discoverer, a tool for automatically reverse engineering the protocol message formats of an application from its network trace. A key property of Discoverer is that it operates in a protocol-independent fashion by inferring protocol idioms commonly seen in message formats of many application-level protocols. We evaluated the efficacy of Discoverer over one text protocol (HTTP) and two binary protocols (RPC and CIFS/SMB) by comparing our inferred formats with true formats obtained from Ethereal [5]. For all three protocols, more than 90% of our inferred formats correspond to exactly one true format; one true format is reflected in five inferred formats on average; our inferred formats cover over 95% of messages, which belong to 30-40% of true formats observed in the trace.


Publication typeInproceedings
Published inProceedings of the 16th USENIX Security Symposium
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