oreilly.comSafari Books Online.Conferences.


AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Protect Your Source Code: Obfuscation 101
Pages: 1, 2

Obfuscation Example

The University of Arizona has developed a very nice Java tool called Sandmark that is used to test and study software watermarking. As part of that study, it implements many well-known obfuscation algorithms and provides a GUI for a tool called Soot, an optimization tool that can also decompile bytecode. These two tools together allow you to take Java code, obfuscate it, and then decompile it to see the effect of the obfuscations. Let's get started with an example to put all of this together:

  • Download Sandmark. Get the executable sandmark.jar file and all the supporting jar files: BCEL.jar, bloat-1.0.jar, dynamicjava.jar, and junit.jar. Place these files in /Library/Java/Home.

  • Download Soot. You'll want the three precompiled jar files: sootclasses-2.2.1.jar, jasminclasses-2.2.1.jar, and polyglotclasses-1.3.jar available from the main page. Place them in /Library/Java/Home.

  • Download the jDecompile script. Add this script to your $PATH by typing export PATH=$PATH:/path/to/file/jDecompile. Also, change its permissions to executable with chmod u+x jDecompile. If you decide to use this tool a lot, you'll want to permanently add it to your path by modifying your .bashrc file. Make sure you're running Sandmark from the same Terminal you used to place this script in your path or else Sandmark won't find the script and you'll get errors.

To start up Sandmark, navigate to the sandmark.jar file with Terminal and execute it by typing java -jar sandmark.jar. The toolbar up top expands with a button on the far right, and each tab has its own specialized help menu, which actually is pretty helpful. For instance, the jDecompile script you downloaded is an adaptation of a script from the "Decompile" tab that I tailored for OS X.

Sandmark has an easy-to-use GUI interface and a great help system.

To do a quick obfuscation of source code, you can choose a particular obfuscation algorithm from the "Obfuscate" tab, or by letting Sandmark apply a variety of obfuscation algorithms on the "Quick Protect" tab.

For an overview of the algorithms available in Sandmark, check here. The only caveat is that Sandmark expects a jar file. (If you'd like an overview of creating and working with jar files before jumping into an example with Sandmark, check here.)

Save the following Java code to a file called

public class IfElseDemo {
    public static void main(String[] args) {

        int testscore = 76;
        char grade;

        if (testscore >= 90) {
            grade = 'A';
        } else if (testscore >= 80) {
            grade = 'B';
        } else if (testscore >= 70) {
            grade = 'C';
        } else if (testscore >= 60) {
            grade = 'D';
        } else {
            grade = 'F';
        System.out.println("Grade = " + grade);

Let's apply an obfuscation algorithm to this simple example and then decompile the obfuscated bytecode to see the difference.

  • Compile IfElseDemo in Terminal.

    • Save a file called containing the example code above.

    • Type javac to compile.

    • Type java IfElseDemo to verify that the code runs.

  • Wrap IfElseDemo.class into an executable jar file.
    • With VIM or a text editor of your choice, create a file called "mainClass" in this same directory.
    • In "mainClass", place this line: "Main-Class: IfElseDemo" (no quotes).

    • Back on the command line, type jar cmf mainClass IfElseDemo.jar IfElseDemo.class.

    • Verify that the jar file is created and type java -jar IfElseDemo.jar to verify that it executes properly.

  • Obfuscate the IfElseDemo.jar in Sandmark.

    • Choose the "Obfuscate" tab, and select the "Merge Local Integers" algorithm. Since our example code is primarily dependent upon integers for its logic, this looks like a good choice.

    • Name the output file IfElseDemo_obfuscated.jar.

    • Click on "Obfuscate".

    • Verify that IfElseDemo_obfuscated.jar exists and execute it with java -jar IfElseDemo_obfuscated.jar.

  • Decompile IfElseDemo_obfuscated.jar with Sandmark to see the difference.

    • Choose the "Decompile" tab by extending the tabs with the arrow button on the far right.

    • Choose the IfElseDemo_obfuscated.jar as your input file.

    • Type "IfElseDemo" (no quotes) into the "Class" text box.

    • Leave the "Classpath" text box blank.

    • Click on "Decompile".

If all goes well, a preview of the obfuscated source code opens up that is quite a bit harder to understand. If you have trouble with the decompiling portion, make sure your path is set correctly for the Terminal window in which you're running Sandmark.

Although this example doesn't unlock any of the secrets of the universe, it does illustrate how effective obfuscation can be for even a simple example. Now imagine applying various obfuscation techniques to thousands of lines of more complex code.

If you take a look at the algorithms Sandmark offers, you'll notice that there's scores of confusing possibilities. Refactoring inheritance hierarchies, introducing confusing arithmetic operations, and introducing buggy variations of existing code blocks that never get executed are just a few of the possibilities. Keep in mind that you might want to just obfuscate the sensitive portions of your code, because the obfuscation can impose size and performance penalties. The penalties may or may not make a difference; it's a trade-off you have to measure and consider.

Final Thoughts

In a world where everyone follows license agreements and no one wants to reverse engineer government secrets, obfuscation techniques wouldn't be of much use. Since we don't live in the shire, however, security measures have their place and are just one of the many things that keeps the world spinning. Hopefully, you now have a better feel for the compilation process and understand how obfuscation is a powerful tool you can use to protect your code from exploitation and hacking.

Matthew Russell is a computer scientist from middle Tennessee; and serves Digital Reasoning Systems as the Director of Advanced Technology. Hacking and writing are two activities essential to his renaissance man regimen.

Return to