A Complete Overview of Binary-Based SAST

Reading time: Reading time 8 minutes

Zimperium's Global Mobile Threat Report found that unique mobile malware samples grew by 51% in 2022. According to Anne Neuberger, the US Deputy National Security Advisor for Cyber and Emerging Technologies, the annual average cost of cybercrime will reach over $23 trillion in 2027

The threat landscape and the cost of ignoring security are increasing. It is no longer advisable to just be reactive but proactive in maintaining the security of mobile devices. 

So, the question now being raised is, “What is maximum security?” 

The answer is to look at the deepest part of your digital architecture and proactively find vulnerabilities, malware, and suspicious activity. This is where binary code analysis comes in. 

Binary code security analysis is a static application security testing that assesses threats and vulnerabilities at the binary code level. It conducts a mobile application vulnerability assessment to examine the raw binaries of your app for vulnerabilities, weaknesses, and malware. 


Table of Content


But what is SAST anyway?

SAST stands for Static Application Security Testing. It is a type of security testing that analyzes application source code, byte code, or binaries for security vulnerabilities without executing the application. 

SAST tools inspect the code from the inside out, looking for vulnerabilities such as SQL injection, cross-site scripting (XSS), buffer overflows, and more. It helps developers identify and fix security issues early in the software development lifecycle, reducing the risk of security breaches in deployed applications.

These tools analyze the code’s structure, syntax, and data flow to detect security weaknesses. Such a method of application security testing provides developers with valuable insights into potential security issues early in the development process. It allows them to address and remediate these vulnerabilities before deploying the application.

How does SAST help?

Static Application Security Testing (SAST) offers numerous benefits to enhance the security posture of software applications:

1. Non-execution-based analysis

By statically analyzing the codebase, SAST eliminates the need to execute potentially malicious binaries, making it safer for examining unknown or untrusted code. This approach prevents security breaches during dynamic testing, where executing unknown code could trigger vulnerabilities.

2. Deep code inspection

SAST tools perform in-depth analysis of the source code, bytecode, or binary code, scrutinizing every line and function for security vulnerabilities. Through abstract syntax tree (AST) and control flow graph (CFG) analysis, SAST tools can trace data flows and identify potential security flaws.

3. Scalability and efficiency

Leveraging static analysis techniques, SAST tools can comprehensively analyze entire software systems or libraries. SAST can be automated and integrated into the software development lifecycle (SDLC), enabling continuous analysis of code changes and providing rapid feedback to developers. 

4. Early detection and mitigation

By identifying vulnerabilities in the early stages of development, SAST enables proactive mitigation of security risks. Detecting issues before deployment allows developers to address them promptly, minimizing the likelihood of attackers' exploitation.

5. Integration with CI/CD pipeline

SAST can seamlessly integrate into the continuous integration/ continuous deployment (CI/CD) pipeline, facilitating DevSecOps practices. By embedding static analysis tools into the CI/CD workflow, organizations can enforce security checks at every stage of the development process.

So, what’s binary-based SAST, then?

Binary-based SAST, also known as static binary code analysis or binary analysis, is an advanced security methodology that dissects executable binary files, such as compiled software or firmware, at the lowest level of abstraction.

It dissects the machine code instructions, data structures, and other elements of the binary file to 

  • Understand its behavior, 
  • Identify vulnerabilities, 
  • Reverse engineer its functionality or 
  • Optimize performance. 

This security analysis proves helpful when the source code is unavailable. Binary-based SAST performs deep analysis in an offline environment of the compiled or ready-to-deploy web, enterprise, desktop, or mobile applications without executing them to detect security flaws in the underlying code, including third-party components and libraries.

Security professionals can create a model of the entire application and analyze its data and inter-procedural flow. This model is then searched for all paths through the application that may be a potential weakness.

The following are the features and characteristics of binary-based SAST:

1. Binary file examination

Static binary code analysis examines binary files to uncover their underlying properties. This method analyzes the instructions encoded in the machine code, the data structures utilized within the binary, and any other important information embedded within the file.

2. Security assessment and vulnerability testing

Binary static analysis is a fantastic tool for conducting comprehensive security assessments and vulnerability testing at the binary level. It lets security experts scrutinize the binary code for potential security flaws, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities.

This analysis is valuable when access to the application's source code is unavailable or when assessing third-party components integrated into the binary.

3. Offline analysis

One of the distinctive features of binary-based SAST is its offline nature, wherein the analysis is conducted without executing the binary file. This offline analysis avoids the risks of potentially malicious code running and provides a secure environment for conducting security assessments.

By analyzing the binary offline, security analysts can thoroughly examine its functionality, behavior, and security posture without exposing the system to potential threats when deploying the application.

4. Deep structural analysis

Static binary code analysis provides a deeper understanding of the binary's structural intricacies, enabling security professionals to create a comprehensive application architecture model.

This model has the entire application's data flow, control flow, and inter-procedural dependencies, allowing for in-depth analysis of its internal workings. By reviewing all possible execution paths within the binary, security analysts can identify potential security weaknesses and vulnerabilities in the code.

What makes binary-based SAST better?

Through binary analysis, your security team can scan components for potential vulnerabilities, ensuring that the integrated code adheres to strict security standards and compliance requirements and preventing the risk of exploitation by malicious actors.

Static binary analysis helps ensure that your devices and applications' security posture is of the highest standard and offers detailed insights into vulnerabilities, compliance, and code dependencies.

By leveraging advanced analysis techniques, you can proactively address security risks. 

Importance of binary-based SAST | Appknox

Let’s check out why binary-based static analysis is essential.

1. Mitigating mobile application risks

Mobile apps often handle sensitive data and communicate over unsecured channels, making them attractive targets for malicious actors. Binary code analysis identifies OWASP Top 10 2024 vulnerabilities, such as 

  • Insecure data storage, 
  • Inadequate data transmission encryption, 
  • Improper handling of user credentials and other vulnerabilities.

2. Detection of malicious third-party components

Mobile apps frequently integrate third-party libraries and components, which may have malicious code or vulnerabilities within their codebase. 

Through binary analysis, your security team can scan these components for potential vulnerabilities, ensuring that the integrated code adheres to strict security standards and compliance requirements—preventing the risk of exploitation by malicious actors.

3. Ensuring regulatory compliance

Compliance regulations like GDPR and HIPAA mandate stringent security measures to safeguard user data and privacy.

Binary code analysis will help you ensure compliance by identifying and remediating security vulnerabilities and privacy concerns within your devices/applications, thereby avoiding regulatory penalties and legal ramifications.

4. Navigating firmware integration challenges

Integrating firmware with hardware devices poses unique challenges, mainly when the firmware is distributed solely in the binary format. Source code review becomes impractical in such scenarios, necessitating binary code analysis to uncover security vulnerabilities, dependencies, and suspicious patterns within the firmware codebase.

5. Understanding code dependencies and interactions

Binary analysis offers a detailed understanding of code dependencies, including libraries, frameworks, and external components utilized within the application.

This insight helps developers assess the security implications of code dependencies and effectively address potential risks arising from vulnerable or outdated components.

6. A holistic view of the software environment

Binary code analysis provides a comprehensive view of the software ecosystem, including aspects such as 

  • Code quality, 
  • Server status, 
  • Release files and 
  • Backend business logic. 

This holistic assessment will help you better understand your application security, facilitating the identification and remedying of vulnerabilities across your entire software stack.

7. Automation for cost savings

The complexity of modern applications, comprising multiple APIs, third-party libraries, and diverse programming languages, makes manual testing impractical and cost-prohibitive. 

Binary code analysis tools automate the analysis process, saving time and reducing costs associated with manual security testing efforts.

How does the static binary code analysis tool work?

Static binary code analysis examines the properties and behavior of compiled executable files, such as binaries, without executing them. This process involves dissecting the binary at the lowest level of abstraction to extract information about its structure, functionality, and potential security vulnerabilities.

 

1. Code disassembly

Binary files are often compiled into machine code, making it difficult to read and understand them directly. Static analysis disassembles this code into a human-readable format known as assembly language. 

2. Code structure analysis

Analysts inspect the disassembled code to understand its structure and identify functions, loops, conditional statements, and other program constructs. 

3. Identifying vulnerabilities

Static analysis can help identify potential security vulnerabilities, such as buffer overflows and format string vulnerabilities, by identifying known code patterns or signatures within the binary.

4. Detecting malware

Examining the binary code can identify patterns and signatures associated with known malware, which will help detect and classify malicious software.

5. Performance optimization

Static analysis can help developers optimize their programs' performance by identifying performance bottlenecks and inefficiencies in the code.

6. Decompilation

This can reconstruct higher-level source code from binary code to comprehend the original program’s logic and structure.

7. Metadata analysis

Static analysis will help examine information embedded within the binary, such as file headers, sections, imports/exports, and other metadata, to gather insights about the program.

 

How do you choose the right binary-based SAST tool?

Choosing a suitable binary-code SAST tool requires careful consideration of various factors to ensure it meets your specific needs and requirements. 

1. Compatibility and language support

Ensure your chosen tool supports the programming languages and platforms used in your organization’s software/application. It should also be compatible with the binaries you intend to analyze, including executables, libraries, and firmware. 

2. Analysis depth and accuracy

Assess the tool’s ability to conduct deep and accurate binary code analysis, including its capability to identify: 

  • Security vulnerabilities, 
  • Dependencies and 
  • Suspicious patterns. 

Besides, you should look for control flow and data flow analysis features and support for identifying vulnerabilities such as buffer overflows, injection attacks, and cryptographic weaknesses. 

3. Scalability and performance

Consider the SAST tool's scalability and performance, especially when dealing with large codebases or frequent code changes. The tool you choose should be able to handle complex binaries efficiently and provide timely results without compromising on accuracy. 

4. Integration and automation

Your chosen tool should integrate seamlessly with your existing development, DevSecOps tools, and workflows. Look for tools with features like 

  • Integration with version control systems, 
  • Continuous integration/continuous deployment (CI/CD) pipelines and
  • Issue-tracking systems.

The tool should have automation capabilities, such as scheduled scans and automatic vulnerability triaging, to streamline the security testing process. 

4. Customization and flexibility

The tool should allow you to configure analysis rules, adjust severity thresholds, and prioritize findings based on your organization’s risk tolerance and security policies. 

6. Reporting and remediation support

Any testing tool should have extensive reporting capabilities highlighting identified vulnerabilities and providing remediation guidance.

Look for features such as vulnerability prioritization, detailed remediation recommendations, and integration with issue-tracking systems for streamlined vulnerability management.

How does Appknox Static Application Security Testing (SAST) work?

Appknox provides simplified binary-code static application security testing (SAST) for mobile app security. SAST within Appknox is performed in a non-runtime environment by examining the binary’s manifest and permission files. 

The platform detects all configurations, SDKs, and minimal versions and performs a comprehensive security assessment based on the collected information. 

Appknox SAST scans app binary and identifies vulnerabilities in the early stages of CI. It provides real-time feedback to fix issues before forwarding to the next SDLC phase. With Appknox, you get robust static scans in <2 minutes, with recommendations for resolving issues and improving compliance.

Binary code static application security testing is initiated automatically once your app is successfully uploaded to Appknox.

Appknox dashboard showing the app uploads and the scan results according to criticality

Using CLI, you can use Appknox to set up a complete CI/CD pipeline for your mobile application. Easily integrate CLI with your development CI/CD pipeline to ensure constant security throughout your development process. 

By using Appknox to integrate CI/CD pipelines in your organization, you can:

  1. Identify security issues based on binary code SAST,
  2. Prevent your pipeline from automatically finishing if security vulnerabilities are found in your code,
  3. Get a summary of all security issues found during scans and
  4. Use the file ID available at the end of the summary to get a comprehensive understanding of the security issues found during the scan.

Key features of Appknox

  • Rapid vulnerability assessment
    Appknox can quickly scan your application's binary code (APK, AAB, IPA) and provide an in-depth evaluation report in less than 60 minutes, identifying vulnerabilities across the SDLC.

  • Customizable test cases
    Appknox's SAST test cases can be easily customized to align with your organization's specific security requirements and risk tolerance, ensuring the analysis is tailored to your business needs.

  • Impact analysis

    Appknox's report clearly outlines the potential impact of each identified vulnerability, allowing you to prioritize remediation efforts effectively.
  • Remediation guidance
    The detailed report includes specific recommendations and step-by-step guidance to help your development team remediate the identified security issues.

By integrating Appknox's SAST solution into your development pipeline, you can shift security left, empowering your developers to write secure code from the start and reducing the overall cost of addressing vulnerabilities. Appknox's customizable and purpose-driven SAST approach ensures your application's security aligns with your business requirements.

Frequently Asked Questions


1. How do you analyze binary code?

Binary code analysis uses techniques such as disassembling or decompiling. It also uses both static and dynamic code analysis. Disassembling converts binary code into a low-level assembly language. Decompiling tries to recreate a higher-level language. 

2. What are the four types of binary code?

The four types of binary code are:

1. Weighted binary code.
2. Non-weighted binary code.
3. Alphanumeric code.
4. Error detection code.

3. What is binary composition analysis?

Binary composition analysis analyses the composition of binary executables, including executable files, libraries, and other binary artifacts. It identifies the components or modules that make up a binary, understands their interdependence, and assesses their characteristics and behaviors.

Published on Jul 3, 2024
Raghunandan J
Written by Raghunandan J
Raghunandan J is a senior product manager at Appknox, a mobile security suite that helps enterprises automate mobile security. With over a decade of expertise in driving the product vision and strategy for a cloud-based mobile security platform, Raghu is a certified ScrumMaster and Business Analyst.
He is the driving force behind our mission to revolutionize AppSec and has a rich experience in agile methodologies and stakeholder management.

Questions?

Chat With Us

Using Other Product?

Switch to Appknox

2 Weeks Free Trial!

Get Started Now