How to Become a Malware Analyst
A rapidly growing and important role within the cybersecurity industry is that of a malware analyst. As a combination of programmer, digital forensics expert, and security engineer, this critical function delivers detailed intelligence after a cybersecurity event. When a cyberattack has been identified and contained a thorough examination and analysis of the incident must be undertaken. This will entail analyzing malware taking a close look at the methods and tools used by the attacker.
New defenses can be refined or deployed as required once the malicious software used in the attack has been analyzed. The capacity to reverse engineer malicious code is vital in a defensive strategy and this is where malware analysts add value to any cybersecurity team.
The cross between a cyber detective and a highly-skilled programmer means this is a very attractive option for many curious and highly skilled tech types.
How to Become a Malware Analyst
1. Career path. Aspiring malware analysts commonly first go through several years as a developer or programmer. These skills provide the applicant with the foundation for understanding how malicious software is constructed. A path moving up through a security department is common only for those that understand security principles and possess advanced programming skills.
2. Education. An important building block for any career in cybersecurity is a bachelor’s degree in either computer science or cybersecurity. As the ability to stay a step ahead of a highly skilled cyber attacker is at the very heart of becoming a successful malware analyst, a bachelor’s degree in one of those disciplines should be seen as a crucial entry point into the field. This foundation will be able to support the required additional reverse engineering and programming skills.
3. Experience. As the knowledge base needed to become a successful malware analyst is cross-functional, the position is best suited for experienced security professionals or computer scientists with malware analyst skills. When completing college with either of the above-mentioned bachelor’s degrees it is not likely that a candidate would have the experience required in both programming and security. Experience in the field will enable the individual to add a solid knowledge of programming skills on top of security practices and principles or vice versa.
4. Professional certifications. Although there is no prescribed professional certification required in the industry for a career as a malware analyst, two certifications are most likely to be desirable qualifiers. The Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) demonstrates an in-depth knowledge of cyberattacks and methods to mitigate these, while the Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) demonstrates that an individual understands security management, engineering, and architecture thoroughly.
For work in government contractor sectors or the government a top-secret with access to sensitive compartmentalized information (TS/SCI) clearance, will likely be needed.
5. Continual learning. A crucial qualifying step in becoming a malware analyst is to demonstrate the ability and drive to stay up to date with cutting-edge attack methods and techniques. Identifying, containing, disassembling, and mitigating zero-day malware is the ultimate of desirable skills. Cyberattacks are largely successful due to them containing some unforeseen or unexpected element in the cyber kill chain. The malware analyst’s job includes being able to evaluate past events and predict accurately what form the next attack may take.
What Is A Malware Analyst?
Above all, malware analysts are cyber-sleuths with carefully honed programming skills. They utilize their programming skills to fully understand how an attack was deployed, why it wasn’t or was successful, and how it can be defended against. They have the required needed to identify the target vulnerability by dissecting the exploit. Working together with other cybersecurity experts they make invaluable contributions toward mitigating and protecting against cyber threats.
As this role requires an understanding of defensive as well as offensive techniques and security principles, it is unique within a security enterprise. It needs programming skills in assembly language alongside an above average sleuthing aptitude.
Malware Analyst Experience and Skills
The skills of analyzing and reverse engineering suspicious code enable malware analysts to protect digital assets by establishing a signature to help identify its presence and predicting the intended results of the code.
Although malware is mostly written in middle-level languages like C and C++, the code will have to first be disassembled before it becomes readable. This means a malware analyst must be skilled at reading, understanding, and programming in the low-level assembly language, which is much more arduous.
It is important to be able to work with various high-level programming languages. The use of sophisticated and specialized digital tools will also be required.
What Does A Malware Analyst Do?
The main function of malware analysts is identifying, examining, and understanding different types of malware and how they are delivered. This malicious software includes all the varied forms of bots, adware, worms, rootkits, bugs, ransomware, spyware, viruses, and Trojan horses.
Once the incident response team has managed to identify and contain an attack the malware analyst will be required to deconstruct, disassemble, and then reverse engineer the malicious code in an attempt to provide the security team with information so that they can better protect against a future attack of similar or the same capabilities and origins. It is mainly a function of connecting seemly disparate dots to solve puzzles.
Although malware analysts are not normally viewed as part of the first line of defense or incident response team, they may sometimes be consulted during an attack’s early stages to provide clarity on the methods and the type of attack being used by the attackers. It is also often the case that a malware analyst plays a significant role in recovery and mitigation efforts once the payload has been contained attack and the vector identified.
The analyst will be called upon to regularly examine suspicious code and determine if it is, in fact, a component of a malware attack. This is especially true when working with APT (advanced persistent threats), where the nefarious code is placed little by little before it is detonated. Although this makes it more difficult to detect and identify malicious code, it also allows a malware analyst to protect against and examine the attack before harm can be done.
Malware Analyst Job Description
Each organization will require a unique set of skills when they consider employing a malware analyst. The composition and size of the security team together with the weaknesses and strengths of existing staff will all contribute to shaping the specific requirements. Ideal candidates will generally require one or more of the following skills:
● Strong knowledge of Windows OS internals, Windows API, and C/C++
● WinDbg, IDA Pro, Immunity Debugger and OllyDbg
● Reconstructing unknown TCP/IP protocols
● Reconstructing unknown data structures and file formats
● Ruby, Perl, and Python scripting
● Understanding of anti-debugging, de-obfuscation, and unpacking techniques
● Ability to write technical reports
Job responsibilities typically include:
● Examining software and programs and using analytic programs to identify threats
● Recording malware threats and identifying systems to avoid them
● Staying up to date on the latest malware and keeping software updated to defend against them
● Classifying malware based on characteristics and threats
● Help to create documentation for security policies
● Writing alerts to keep the security team informed
● Understanding tools that identify zero-day cyber threats
Malware Analysts Outlook
The global cybersecurity staffing shortage is growing and with it the demand for qualified malware analysts. Opportunities for security professionals wanting to cross over from programming roles or to advance are likely to increase as new entrants fill entry-level positions.
There is no indication that the pace at which malicious code is used for attacks globally will diminish in the foreseeable future. New evermore malicious forms of malware are in fact identified each month. As long as this stays the case, the requirement for malware analysts will only increase.
How Much Does a Malware Analyst Earn?
As being a malware analyst requires special language and programming skills as well as an excellent understanding of complex tools, analysts have a competitive advantage over most other cybersecurity jobs. It is seen by most to be an experienced-level, and not an entry-level, role and therefore the average malware analyst salary corresponds to this.