Programming Experience Might Not Help in Comprehending Obfuscated Source Code Efficiently


Norman Hänsch, Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg; Andrea Schankin, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology; Mykolai Protsenko, Fraunhofer Institute for Applied and Integrated Security; Felix Freiling and Zinaida Benenson, Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg


Software obfuscation is a technique to protect programs from malicious reverse engineering by explicitly making them harder to understand. We investigate the effect of two specific source code obfuscation methods on the program comprehension efforts of 66 university students playing the role of attackers in a reverse engineering experiment by partially replicating experiments of Ceccatto et al. We confirm that the two obfuscation methods have a measurable negative effect on program comprehension in general but also show that this effect inversely correlates with the programming experience of attackers. So while the comprehension effectiveness of experienced programmers is generally higher than for inexperienced programmers, the comprehension gap between these groups narrows considerably if source code obfuscation is used. In extension of previous work, an investigation of the code analysis behavior of attackers reveals that there exist obfuscation techniques that significantly impede comprehension even if tool support exists to revert them, giving first supportive empirical evidence for the classical distinction between potent and resilient obfuscation techniques defined by Collberg et al. more than 20 years ago.

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@inproceedings {219439,
author = {Norman H{\"a}nsch and Andrea Schankin and Mykolai Protsenko and Felix Freiling and Zinaida Benenson},
title = {Programming Experience Might Not Help in Comprehending Obfuscated Source Code Efficiently},
booktitle = {Fourteenth Symposium on Usable Privacy and Security (SOUPS 2018)},
year = {2018},
isbn = {978-1-939133-10-6},
address = {Baltimore, MD},
pages = {341--356},
url = {},
publisher = {USENIX Association},
month = aug