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Security Applications of Formal Language Theory
Len Sassaman, Meredith L. Patterson, Sergey Bratus, Michael E. Locasto, Anna Shubina
Dartmouth TR2011-709

Abstract: We present an approach to improving the security of complex, composed systems based on formal language theory, and show how this approach leads to advances in input validation, security modeling, attack surface reduction, and ultimately, software design and programming methodology. We cite examples based on real-world security flaws in common protocols representing different classes of protocol complexity. We also introduce a formalization of an exploit development technique, the parse tree differential attack, made possible by our conception of the role of formal grammars in security. These insights make possible future advances in software auditing techniques applicable to static and dynamic binary analysis, fuzzing, and general reverse-engineering and exploit development.

Our work provides a foundation for verifying critical implementation components with considerably less burden to developers than is offered by the current state of the art. It additionally offers a rich basis for further exploration in the areas of offensive analysis and, conversely, automated defense tools and techniques.

This report is divided into two parts. In Part I we address the formalisms and their applications; in Part II we discuss the general implications and recommendations for protocol and software design that follow from our formal analysis.


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   Len Sassaman, Meredith L. Patterson, Sergey Bratus, Michael E. Locasto, and Anna Shubina, "Security Applications of Formal Language Theory." Dartmouth Computer Science Technical Report TR2011-709, November 2011.

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