Reverse engineering is applicable in the fields of mechanical engineering, electronic engineering, software engineering, chemical engineering, and systems biology.
Reverse engineering has its origins in the analysis of hardware for commercial or military advantage.However, the reverse engineering process in itself is not concerned with creating a copy or changing the artifact in some way; it is only an analysis in order to deduce design features from products with little or no additional knowledge about the procedures involved in their original production.
In some cases, the goal of the reverse engineering process can simply be a redocumentation of legacy systems. Even when the product reverse engineered is that of a competitor, the goal may not be to copy them, but to perform competitor analysis. Reverse engineering may also be used to create interoperable products and despite some narrowly tailored United States and European Union legislation, the legality of using specific reverse engineering techniques for this purpose has been hotly contested in courts worldwide for more than two decades.
There are many reasons for performing reverse engineering in various fields. Reverse engineering software can help to improve the understanding of the underlying source code for the maintenance and improvement of the software, relevant information can be extracted in order to make a decision for software development and graphical representations of the code can provide alternate views regarding the source code, which can help to detect and fix a software bug or vulnerability. Frequently, as some software develops, its design information and improvements are often lost over time, but this lost information can usually be recovered with reverse engineering. This process can also help to cut down the time required to understand the source code, reducing the overall cost of the software development.
Reverse engineering can also help to detect and eliminate a malicious code written to the software with better code detectors. Reversing a source code can be used to find alternate uses of the source code, such as to detect unauthorized replication of the source code where it wasn't intended to be used, or to reveal how a competitors product was built.
This process is commonly used for "cracking" software and media to remove their copy protection: or to create a (possibly improved) copy or even a knockoff, which is usually the goal of a competitor or a hacker. Malware developers often use reverse engineering techniques to find vulnerabilities in an operating system (OS), in order build a computer virus that can exploit the system vulnerabilities. Reverse engineering is also being used in cryptanalysis in order to find vulnerabilities in substitution cipher, symmetric-key algorithm or public-key cryptography.
Interfacing. Reverse engineering can be used when a system is required to interface to another system and how both systems would negotiate is to be established. Such requirements typically exist for interoperability.
Military or commercial espionage. Learning about an enemy’s or competitor’s latest research by stealing or capturing a prototype and dismantling it, which may result in development of similar product, or a better countermeasure against it.
Obsolescence. Integrated circuits are often designed on proprietary systems, and built on production lines which become obsolete in only a few years. When systems using these parts can no longer be maintained (since the parts are no longer made), the only way to incorporate the functionality into new technology is to reverse engineer the existing chip and then redesign it using newer tools, using the understanding gained as a guide. Another obsolescence originated problem which can be solved by reverse engineering is the need to support (maintenance and supply for continuous operation) existing, legacy devices which are no longer supported by their original equipment manufacturer (OEM). This problem is particularly critical in military operations.
Product security analysis. To examine how a product works, what are specifications of its components, estimate costs and identify potential patent infringement. Acquiring sensitive data by disassembling and analysing the design of a system component. Another intent may be to remove copy protection, or circumvention of access restrictions.
Competitive technical intelligence. Understand what one's competitor is actually doing, versus what they say they are doing.
Saving money, when one finds out what a piece of electronics is capable of, it can spare a user from purchase of a separate product.
Repurposing, when obsolete objects are reused in a different but useful manner.
Reverse engineering of machines
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 Industrial CT Scanning (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 analyse, 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 de-constructing and analysing products, but the objective is to find opportunities for cost cutting.
Reverse engineering of software
In 1990, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) defined reverse engineering as "the process of analyzing a subject system to identify the system's components and their interrelationships and to create representations of the system in another form or at a higher level of abstraction", where the "subject system" is the end product of software development. Reverse engineering is a process of examination only: the software system under consideration is not modified (which would make it re-engineering or restructuring). Reverse engineering can be performed from any stage of the product cycle, not necessarily from the functional end product.
There are two components in reverse engineering: redocumentation and design recovery. Redocumentation is the creation of new representation of the computer code so that it is easier to understand. Meanwhile, design recovery is the using of deduction or reasoning from general knowledge or personal experience of the product in order to fully understand the product functionality. 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. Another term for this technique is program comprehension. Working Conference on Reverse Engineering (WCRE) has been held yearly to explore and expand the techniques of reverse engineering. Computer-aided software engineering (CASE) and automated code generation have contributed greatly in the field of reverse engineering.
Software anti-tamper technology like obfuscation is used to deter both reverse engineering and re-engineering 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 chip-sets), or even mere satisfaction of curiosity.