About MAEC

Malware Attribute Enumeration and Characterization (MAEC™) (pronounced “mike”) is a community-developed structured language for encoding and communicating high-fidelity information about malware based upon attributes such as behaviors, artifacts, and attack patterns.

By eliminating the ambiguity and inaccuracy that currently exists in malware descriptions and by reducing reliance on signatures, MAEC aims to:

  • Improve human-to-human, human-to-tool, tool-to-tool, and tool-to-human communication about malware.
  • Allow for the faster development of countermeasures by enabling the ability to leverage responses to previously observed malware instances.
  • Enable correlation, integration, and automation.
  • Reduce potential duplication of malware analysis efforts by researchers.

Malware

Malicious software — also called “malware” — has existed in one form or another since the advent of the first PC virus in 1971. It is presently responsible for a host of malicious activities, ranging from the vast majority of spam email distribution through botnets to the theft of sensitive information via targeted social engineering attacks. Whether the attackers are script kiddies, “hacktivists,” criminals, or nation states, all may use malware of some variety to negatively impact or gain access to an organization’s network and infrastructure. Effectively an autonomous agent operating on behalf of the attacker, malware has the ability to perform any action capable of being expressed in code, and as such represents a prodigious threat to cyber security.

The protection of computer systems from malware is therefore currently one of the most important information security concerns for organizations and individuals, because even a single instance of uncaught malware can result in damaged systems and compromised data. Being disconnected from a computer network does not completely mitigate this risk of infection, as exemplified by malware that makes use of USB as its insertion vector. As such, the main focus of the majority of anti-malware efforts to date has been on preventing damaging effects through early detection.

There are currently several common methods utilized for malware detection, based mainly on physical signatures and heuristics. These methods are effective in terms of their narrow scope, although they have their own individual drawbacks, such as the fact that signatures are unsuitable for dealing with zero-day, targeted, polymorphic, and other forms of emerging malware. Similarly, heuristic detection may be able to generically detect certain types of malware while missing those for which it does not have patterns, such as kernel-level rootkits. Therefore, it would be safe to say that these methods, while still useful, cannot be exclusively relied upon to deal with the current influx of malware.

Why MAEC

Problem

Modern methods for detecting and combating malware often rely on the characterization of malware attributes and behaviors.

Typically, such behaviors and attributes are discovered through the use of static and dynamic analysis techniques. The combination of the two allows for an encompassing profile of malware to be constructed based upon its disassembled binary and observed run-time behavior.

Yet, the lack of an accepted standard for unambiguously characterizing malware before MAEC meant there was no clear method for communicating the specific malware attributes detected in malware by the analyses, nor for enumerating its fundamental makeup. The results were non-interoperable and disparate malware reporting between organizations, disjointed or inaccurate malware attribution, the duplication of malware analysis efforts, increased difficulty in determining the severity of a malware threat, and a greater period of time between malware infection and detection/response, among others.

Solution

MAEC solves these problems. The characterization of malware using abstract patterns offers a wide range of benefits over the usage of physical signatures, and allows for the accurate encoding of how malware operates and the specific actions that it performs. Such information can not only be used for malware detection, but also for assessing the end-goal the malware is pursuing and the corresponding threat that it represents.

Focusing on the attributes and behaviors of malware facilitates detection and analysis of emerging, sophisticated malware threats that circumvent the traditional signature-based and heuristic approaches. Characterizing malware in a standard way supports collaboration across organizations and the identification of common behavior, functionality, and code bases across instances of malware.

MAEC achieves this end result by utilizing three community-developed components to define the structured MAEC Language:

  • Element dictionaries.

  • Schemas for defining vocabulary syntax.

  • Standard output formats based on schemas.

The MAEC Language

The MAEC Language is comprised of the following:

  • MAEC Dictionaries – a series of dictionaries for defining three distinct levels of malware elements—low-level actions, mid-level behaviors, and high-level mechanisms.

  • MAEC Schemas – a syntax for the vocabulary of actions, behaviors, and taxonomies, and an interchange format for structured information about these elements.

  • MAEC Output Formats – standard output formats that can be used for particular use cases, including the description of a malware instance, malware intrusion set, or malware families in terms of MAEC’s dictionaries and schemas.

The MAEC Language is extremely flexible. Aside from a unique identifier and specifying the MAEC schema version, all objects are optional in MAEC. Users are able to capture exactly what they want and nothing more.

Learn about the MAEC data models, or go to the current release of the MAEC Language.

Benefits

The adoption of MAEC for encoding high-fidelity information about malware has major benefits for the community:

  • Elimination of ambiguity and inaccuracy in malware descriptions – MAEC allows for a vastly improved level of human-to-human, human-to-tool, tool-to-tool, and tool-to-human communication about anti-malware related information. This will positively impact all major stakeholders, including producers and consumers of malware analysis and related malware data, as well as the end-users of tools for malware prevention and mitigation.

  • Reduced duplication of malware analysis efforts – A common method of characterizing malware along with a corresponding standard for malware analysis reporting will allow researchers and analysts to easily determine whether or not a particular malware instance has already been analyzed.

  • Improved general awareness of malware – An adopted standard for characterizing malware will allow for increased public awareness of malware threats and activity due to its widespread usage throughout the entire anti-malware data producer to consumer chain.

  • Decreased overall response time to malware threats – The standard method of describing malware behavior provided by MAEC will allow for the faster development of countermeasures based upon those developed for previously observed malware instances.

MAEC Community

The MAEC Community includes representatives from antivirus vendors, operating system vendors, software vendors, IT users, security services providers, and others from across the international cyber security community who have come together to help build this growing, open-source industry effort.

A few short cuts:

  • MAEC Community Discussion List – Where community members discuss the latest versions of the MAEC specifications, schemas, utilities, and other items integral to the ongoing development of MAEC.

  • MAEC MediaWiki – Where the MAEC Community collaborates on building our Semantic MediaWiki of malware capabilities, behaviors, and structural features, and their associated attributes.

  • MAECProject GitHub Tools & Utilities – The central location for MAEC Community members to make open-source contributions to MAEC development and manage issue tracking for the MAEC schemas, utilities, and other supporting information and items.

Feedback is welcome at maec@mitre.org.