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Computer Viruses, Worms and Trojans

Malware can be classified based on whether and how it replicates and spreads.

The remainder of this article on viruses was copied from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Computer_virus on 17 Nov 2006 with permission.

Computer virus

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A computer virus is a self-replicating computer program written to alter the way a computer operates, without the permission or knowledge of the user. Though the term is commonly used to refer to a range of malware, a true virus must replicate itself, and must execute itself. The latter criteria are often met by a virus which replaces existing executable files with a virus-infected copy. While viruses can be intentionally destructive—destroying data, for example—some viruses are benign or merely annoying.

Contents

Distinction between malware and computer viruses

Malware is a broad category of software designed to infiltrate or damage a computer system. Types of malware include spyware, adware, Trojan horses, Worms, and true viruses. While modern anti-virus software works to protect computers from this range of threats, computer viruses make up only a small subset of malware.

Comparison with biological viruses

A computer virus behaves in a way similar to a biological virus, which spreads by inserting itself into living cells. Extending the analogy, the insertion of a virus into the program is termed as an "infection", and the infected file, or executable code that is not part of a file, is called a "host".

A computer virus will pass from one computer to another like a real life biological virus passes from person to person. For example, it is estimated by experts that the Mydoom worm infected a quarter-million computers in a single day in January 2004. In March 1999, the Melissa virus spread so rapidly that it forced Microsoft and a number of other very large companies to completely turn off their e-mail systems until the virus could be dealt with. Another example is the ILOVEYOU virus, which occurred in 2000 and had a similar effect. It stole most of its operating style from Melissa.

Classification

Viruses can be subdivided into a number of types, the main ones being:

  • Boot sector viruses
  • Companion viruses
  • Email viruses
  • Logic bombs and time bombs
  • Macro viruses
  • Cross-site scripting virus

Two other types of malware are often classified as viruses, but are actually forms of distributing malware:

  • Trojan horses
  • Worms

Boot sector virus

A boot sector virus alters or hides in the boot sector, usually the 1st sector, of a bootable disk or hard drive. Boot sector viruses were prevalent in the 1980s.

Companion virus

A companion virus[1] does not have host files per se, but exploits MS-DOS. A companion virus creates new files (typically .COM but can also use other extensions such as ".EXD") that have the same file names as legitimate .EXE files. When a user types in the name of a desired program, if a user does not type in ".EXE" but instead does not specify a file extension, DOS will assume he meant the file with the extension that comes first in alphabetical order and run the virus. For instance, if a user had "(filename).COM" (the virus) and "(filename).EXE" and the user typed "filename", he will run "(filename).COM" and run the virus. The virus will spread and do other tasks before redirecting to the legitimate file, which operates normally. Some companion viruses are known to run under Windows 95 and on DOS emulators on Windows NT systems. Path companion viruses create files that have the same name as the legitimate file and place new virus copies earlier in the directory paths. These viruses have become increasingly rare with the introduction of Windows XP, which does not use the MS-DOS command prompt.

E-mail virus

An E-mail virus is a virus which uses e-mail messages as a mode of transport. These viruses often copy themselves by automatically mailing copies to hundreds of people in the victim's address book.

Logic bomb

A logic bomb employs code that lies inert until specific conditions are met. The resolution of the conditions will trigger a certain function (such as printing a message to the user and/or deleting files). An example of a logic bomb would be a virus that waits to execute until it has infected a certain number of hosts. A time bomb is a subset of logic bomb, which is set to trigger on a particular date and/or time.

Macro virus

A macro virus, often written in the scripting languages for Microsoft programs such as Word and Excel, is spread in Microsoft Office by infecting documents and spreadsheets.

Cross-site scripting virus

A cross-site scripting virus (XSSV) is a type of virus that utilizes cross-site scripting vulnerabilities to replicate. A XSSV is spread between vulnerable web applications and web browsers creating a symbiotic relationship.

Trojan horse

Trojan Horses are impostor files that claim to be something desirable but, in fact, are malicious. Rather than insert code into existing files, a Trojan horse appears to do one thing (install a screen saver, or show a picture inside an e-mail for example) when in fact it does something entirely different, and potentially malicious, such as erase files. Trojans can also open back doors so that computer hackers can gain access to passwords, and other personal information stored on a computer.

Although often referred to as such, Trojan horses are not viruses in the strict sense because they cannot replicate automatically. For a Trojan horse to spread, it must be invited onto a computer by the user opening an email attachment or downloading and running a file from the Internet, for example.

Worm

A worm is a piece of software that uses computer networks and security flaws to create copies of itself. A copy of the worm will scan the network for any other machine that has a specific security flaw. It replicates itself to the new machine using the security flaw, and then begins scanning and replicating anew.

Worms are programs that replicate themselves from system to system without the use of a host file. This is in contrast to viruses, which requires the spreading of an infected host file. Although worms generally exist inside of other files, often Word or Excel documents, there is a difference between how worms and viruses use the host file. Usually the worm will release a document that already has the "worm" macro inside the document. The entire document will travel from computer to computer, so the entire document should be considered the worm. Mydoom is an example of a worm.

Effects of computer viruses

Some viruses are programmed to damage the computer by damaging programs, deleting files, or reformatting the hard disk. Others are not designed to do any damage, but simply replicate themselves and make their presence known by presenting text, video, or audio messages. Even these benign viruses can create problems for the computer user. They typically take up computer memory used by legitimate programs. As a result, they often cause erratic behavior and can result in system crashes. In addition, many viruses are bug-ridden, and these bugs may lead to system crashes and data loss.

Use of the word "virus"

The word virus is derived from and used in the same sense as the biological equivalent. The term "virus" is often used in common parlance to describe all kinds of malware (malicious software), including those that are more properly classified as worms or Trojans. Most popular anti-virus software packages defend against all of these types of attack. In some technical communities, the term "virus" is also extended to include the authors of malware, in an insulting sense. The English plural of "virus" is "viruses". Some people use "virii" or "viri" as a plural, but this is rare. For a discussion about whether "viri" and "virii" are correct alternatives of "viruses", see plural of virus.

History

A program called "Elk Cloner" is credited with being the first computer virus to appear "in the wild" -- that is, outside the single computer or lab where it was created. Written in 1982 by Rich Skrenta, it attached itself to the Apple DOS 3.3 operating system and spread by floppy disk. This virus was originally a joke, created by the high school student and put onto a game. The game was set to play, but release the virus on the 50th time of starting the game. Only this time, instead of playing the game, it would change to a blank screen that read a poem about the virus named Elk Cloner. The computer would then be infected.

The first PC virus was a boot sector virus called (c)Brain, created in 1986 by two brothers, Basit and Amjad Farooq Alvi, operating out of Lahore, Pakistan. The brothers reportedly created the virus to deter pirated copies of software they had written. However, analysts have claimed that the Ashar virus, a variant of Brain, possibly predated it based on code within the virus.

Before computer networks became widespread, most viruses spread on removable media, particularly floppy disks. In the early days of the personal computer, many users regularly exchanged information and programs on floppies. Some viruses spread by infecting programs stored on these disks, while others installed themselves into the disk boot sector, ensuring that they would be run when the user booted the computer from the disk.

Traditional computer viruses emerged in the 1980s, driven by the spread of personal computers and the resultant increase in BBS and modem use, and software sharing. Bulletin board driven software sharing contributed directly to the spread of Trojan horse programs, and viruses were written to infect popularly traded software. Shareware and bootleg software were equally common vectors for viruses on BBS's. Within the "pirate scene" of hobbyists trading illicit copies of commercial software, traders in a hurry to obtain the latest applications and games were easy targets for viruses.

Since the mid-1990s, macro viruses have become common. Most of these viruses are written in the scripting languages for Microsoft programs such as Word and Excel. These viruses spread in Microsoft Office by infecting documents and spreadsheets. Since Word and Excel were also available for Mac OS, most of these viruses were able to spread on Macintosh computers as well. Most of these viruses did not have the ability to send infected e-mail. Those viruses which did spread through e-mail took advantage of the Microsoft Outlook COM interface.

Macro viruses pose unique problems for detection software. For example, some versions of Microsoft Word allowed macros to replicate themselves with additional blank lines. The virus behaved identically but would be misidentified as a new virus. In another example, if two macro viruses simultaneously infect a document, the combination of the two, if also self-replicating, can appear as a "mating" of the two and would likely be detected as a virus unique from the "parents".[2]

A computer virus may also be transmitted through instant messaging. A virus may send a web address link as an instant message to all the contacts on an infected machine. If the recipient, thinking the link is from a friend (a trusted source) and follows the link to the website, the virus hosted at the site may be able to infect this new computer and continue propagating.

The newest species of the virus family is the cross-site scripting virus. The virus emerged from research and was academically demonstrated in 2005. This virus utilizes cross-site scripting vulnerabilities to propagate. Since 2005 there have been multiple instances of the cross-site scripting viruses in the wild, most notable sites affected have been MySpace and Yahoo.

Why people create computer viruses

Unlike biological viruses, computer viruses do not simply evolve by themselves. Computer viruses do not come into existence spontaneously, nor are they likely to be created by bugs in regular programs. They are deliberately created by programmers, or by people who use virus creation software. Computer viruses can only do what the programmers have programmed them to do.

Virus writers can have various reasons for creating and spreading malware. Viruses have been written as research projects, pranks, vandalism, to attack the products of specific companies, to distribute political messages, and financial gain from identity theft, spyware, and cryptoviral extortion. Some virus writers consider their creations to be works of art, and see virus writing as a creative hobby. Additionally, many virus writers oppose deliberately destructive payload routines. Some viruses were intended as "good viruses". They spread improvements to the programs they infect, or delete other viruses. These viruses are, however, quite rare, still consume system resources, may accidentally damage systems they infect, and, on occasion, have become infected and acted as vectors for malicious viruses. A poorly written "good virus" can also inadvertently become a virus in and of itself (for example, such a 'good virus' may misidentify its target file and delete an innocent system file by mistake). Moreover, they normally operate without asking for the permission of the computer owner. Since self-replicating code causes many complications, it is questionable if a well-intentioned virus can ever solve a problem in a way that is superior to a regular program that does not replicate itself.

Releasing computer viruses (as well as worms) is a crime in most jurisdictions.

See also the BBC News article.[3]

Replication strategies

In order to replicate itself, a virus must be permitted to execute code and write to memory. For this reason, many viruses attach themselves to executable files that may be part of legitimate programs. If a user tries to start an infected program, the virus' code may be executed first. Viruses can be divided into two types, on the basis of their behavior when they are executed. Nonresident viruses immediately search for other hosts that can be infected, infect these targets, and finally transfer control to the application program they infected. Resident viruses do not search for hosts when they are started. Instead, a resident virus loads itself into memory on execution and transfers control to the host program. The virus stays active in the background and infects new hosts when those files are accessed by other programs or the operating system itself.

Nonresident viruses

Nonresident viruses can be thought of as consisting of a finder module and a replication module. The finder module is responsible for finding new files to infect. For each new executable file the finder module encounters, it calls the replication module to infect that file.

For simple viruses the replicator's tasks are to:

  1. Open the new file
  2. Check if the executable file has already been infected (if it is, return to the finder module)
  3. Append the virus code to the executable file
  4. Save the executable's starting point
  5. Change the executable's starting point so that it points to the start location of the newly copied virus code
  6. Save the old start location to the virus in a way so that the virus branches to that location right after its execution.
  7. Save the changes to the executable file
  8. Close the infected file
  9. Return to the finder so that it can find new files for the replicator to infect.

Resident viruses

Resident viruses contain a replication module that is similar to the one that is employed by nonresident viruses. However, this module is not called by a finder module. Instead, the virus loads the replication module into memory when it is executed and ensures that this module is executed each time the operating system is called to perform a certain operation. For example, the replication module can be called each time the operating system executes a file. In this case, the virus infects every suitable program that is executed on the computer.

Resident viruses are sometimes subdivided into a category of fast infectors and a category of slow infectors. Fast infectors are designed to infect as many files as possible. For instance, a fast infector can infect every potential host file that is accessed. This poses a special problem to anti-virus software, since a virus scanner will access every potential host file on a computer when it performs a system-wide scan. If the virus scanner fails to notice that such a virus is present in memory, the virus can "piggy-back" on the virus scanner and in this way infect all files that are scanned. Fast infectors rely on their fast infection rate to spread. The disadvantage of this method is that infecting many files may make detection more likely, because the virus may slow down a computer or perform many suspicious actions that can be noticed by anti-virus software. Slow infectors, on the other hand, are designed to infect hosts infrequently. For instance, some slow infectors only infect files when they are copied. Slow infectors are designed to avoid detection by limiting their actions: they are less likely to slow down a computer noticeably, and will at most infrequently trigger anti-virus software that detects suspicious behavior by programs. The slow infector approach does not seem very successful however.

Host types

Viruses have targeted various types of hosts. This is a non-exhaustive list:

Methods to avoid detection

In order to avoid detection by users, some viruses employ different kinds of deception. Some old viruses, especially on the MS-DOS platform, make sure that the "last modified" date of a host file stays the same when the file is infected by the virus. This approach does not fool anti-virus software, however.

Some viruses can infect files without increasing their sizes or damaging the files. They accomplish this by overwriting unused areas of executable files. These are called cavity viruses. For example the CIH virus, or Chernobyl Virus, infects Portable Executable files. Because those files had many empty gaps, the virus, which was 1 KB in length, did not add to the size of the file.

Some viruses try to avoid detection by killing the tasks associated with antivirus software before it can detect them.

As computers and operating systems grow larger and more complex, old hiding techniques need to be updated or replaced.

Avoiding bait files and other undesirable hosts

A virus needs to infect hosts in order to spread further. In some cases, it might be a bad idea to infect a host program. For example, many anti-virus programs perform an integrity check of their own code. Infecting such programs will therefore increase the likelihood that the virus is detected. For this reason, some viruses are programmed not to infect programs that are known to be part of anti-virus software. Another type of hosts that viruses sometimes avoid is bait files. Bait files (or goat files) are files that are specially created by anti-virus software, or by anti-virus professionals themselves, to be infected by a virus. These files can be created for various reasons, all of which are related to the detection of the virus:

  • Anti-virus professionals can use bait files to take a sample of a virus (i.e. a copy of a program file that is infected by the virus). It is more practical to store and exchange a small, infected bait file, than to exchange a large application program that has been infected by the virus.
  • Anti-virus professionals can use bait files to study the behavior of a virus and evaluate detection methods. This is especially useful when the virus is polymorphic. In this case, the virus can be made to infect a large number of bait files. The infected files can be used to test whether a virus scanner detects all versions of the virus.
  • Some anti-virus software employs bait files that are accessed regularly. When these files are modified, the anti-virus software warns the user that a virus is probably active on the system.

Since bait files are used to detect the virus, or to make detection possible, a virus can benefit from not infecting them. Viruses typically do this by avoiding suspicious programs, such as small program files or programs that contain certain patterns of 'garbage instructions'.

A related strategy to make baiting difficult is sparse infection. Sometimes, sparse infectors do not infect a host file that would be a suitable candidate for infection in other circumstances. For example, a virus can decide on a random basis whether to infect a file or not, or a virus can only infect host files on particular days of the week.

Stealth

Some viruses try to trick anti-virus software by intercepting its requests to the operating system. A virus can hide itself by intercepting the anti-virus software’s request to read the file and passing the request to the virus, instead of the OS. The virus can then return an uninfected version of the file to the anti-virus software, so that it seems that the file is "clean". Modern anti-virus software employs various techniques to counter stealth mechanisms of viruses. The only completely reliable method to avoid stealth is to boot from a medium that is known to be clean.

Self-modification

Most modern antivirus programs try to find virus-patterns inside ordinary programs by scanning them for so-called virus signatures. A signature is a characteristic byte-pattern that is part of a certain virus or family of viruses. If a virus scanner finds such a pattern in a file, it notifies the user that the file is infected. The user can then delete, or (in some cases) "clean" or "heal" the infected file. Some viruses employ techniques that make detection by means of signatures difficult or impossible. These viruses modify their code on each infection. That is, each infected file contains a different variant of the virus.

Simple self-modifications

In the past, some viruses modified themselves only in simple ways. For example, they regularly exchanged subroutines in their code for others that would perform the same action - for example, 2+2 could be swapped for 1+3. This poses no problems to a somewhat advanced virus scanner.

Encryption with a variable key

A more advanced method is the use of simple encryption to encipher the virus. In this case, the virus consists of a small decrypting module and an encrypted copy of the virus code. If the virus is encrypted with a different key for each infected file, the only part of the virus that remains constant is the decrypting module, which would (for example) be appended to the end. In this case, a virus scanner cannot directly detect the virus using signatures, but it can still detect the decrypting module, which still makes indirect detection of the virus possible.

Mostly, the decryption techniques that these viruses employ are simple and mostly done by just xoring each byte with a randomized key that was saved by the parent virus. The use of XOR-operations has the additional advantage that the encryption and decryption routine are the same (a xor b = c, c xor b = a.)

Polymorphic code

Polymorphic code was the first technique that posed a serious threat to virus scanners. Just like regular encrypted viruses, a polymorphic virus infects files with an encrypted copy of itself, which is decoded by a decryption module. In the case of polymorphic viruses however, this decryption module is also modified on each infection. A well-written polymorphic virus therefore has no parts that stay the same on each infection, making it impossible to detect directly using signatures. Anti-virus software can detect it by decrypting the viruses using an emulator, or by statistical pattern analysis of the encrypted virus body. To enable polymorphic code, the virus has to have a polymorphic engine (also called mutating engine or mutation engine) somewhere in its encrypted body. See Polymorphic code for technical detail on how such engines operate.

Some viruses employ polymorphic code in a way that constrains the mutation rate of the virus significantly. For example, a virus can be programmed to mutate only slightly over time, or it can be programmed to refrain from mutating when it infects a file on a computer that already contains copies of the virus. The advantage of using such slow polymorphic code is that it makes it more difficult for anti-virus professionals to obtain representative samples of the virus, because bait files that are infected in one run will typically contain identical or similar samples of the virus. This will make it more likely that the detection by the virus scanner will be unreliable, and that some instances of the virus may be able to avoid detection.

Metamorphic code

To avoid being detected by emulation, some viruses rewrite themselves completely each time they are to infect new executables. Viruses that use this technique are said to be metamorphic. To enable metamorphism, a metamorphic engine is needed. A metamorphic virus is usually very large and complex. For example, W32/Simile consisted of over 14000 lines of Assembly language code, 90% of it part of the metamorphic engine.

Vulnerability and countermeasures

The vulnerability of operating systems to viruses

Another analogy to biological viruses: just as genetic diversity in a population decreases the chance of a single disease wiping out a population, the diversity of software systems on a network similarly limits the destructive potential of viruses.

This became a particular concern in the 1990s, when Microsoft gained market dominance in desktop operating systems and office suites. The users of Microsoft software (especially networking software such as Microsoft Outlook and Internet Explorer) are especially vulnerable to the spread of viruses. Microsoft software is targeted by virus writers due to their desktop dominance, and is often criticized for including many errors and holes for virus writers to exploit. Integrated applications, applications with scripting languages with access to the file system (for example Visual Basic Script (VBS), and applications with networking features) are also particularly vulnerable.

Although Windows is by far the most popular operating system for virus writers, some viruses also exist on other platforms. Any operating system that allows third-party programs to run can theoretically run viruses. Some operating systems are less secure than others. Unix-based OS's (and NTFS-aware applications on Windows NT based platforms) only allow their users to run executables within their protected space in their own directories.

As of 2006, there are relatively few security exploits [4] targeting Mac OS X (a Unix-based operating system); the known vulnerabilities fall under the classifications of worms and Trojans. The number of viruses for the older Apple operating systems, known as Mac OS Classic, varies greatly from source to source, with Apple stating that there are only four known viruses, and independent sources stating there are as many as 63 viruses. However, Mac users are advised to install anti-virus software, because they can accidentally pass on a file that is infected with a Windows virus or Trojan. While this malware does not affect the Mac, it can infect a Windows PC. It is safe to say that Macs are less likely to be exploited due to their secure Unix base, and because a Mac-specific virus could only infect a small proportion of computers (making the effort less desirable). Virus vulnerability between Macs and Windows was/is a chief catalyst of the platform wars between Apple Computers and Microsoft.

Windows and Unix have similar scripting abilities, but while Unix natively blocks normal users from having access to make changes to the operating system environment, Windows does not. In 1997, when a virus for Linux was released – known as "Bliss" – leading antivirus vendors issued warnings that Unix-like systems could fall prey to viruses just like Windows.[5] The Bliss virus may be considered characteristic of viruses – as opposed to worms – on Unix systems. Bliss requires that the user run it explicitly, and it can only infect programs that the user has the access to modify. Unlike Windows users, most Unix users do not log in as an administrator user except to install or configure software; as a result, even if a user ran the virus, it could not harm their operating system. The Bliss virus never became widespread, and remains chiefly a research curiosity. Its creator later posted the source code to Usenet, allowing researchers to see how it worked.[6]

The role of software development

Because software is often designed with security features to prevent unauthorized use of system resources, many viruses must exploit software bugs in a system or application to spread. Software development strategies that produce large numbers of bugs will generally also produce potential exploits.

Closed-source software development, as practiced by Microsoft and other proprietary software companies, is seen by many as a security weakness. Open source software such as Linux, for example, allows all users to look for and fix security problems without relying on a single vendor. Some advocate that proprietary software makers practice vulnerability disclosure to improve this weakness.

On the other hand, some claim that open source development exposes potential security problems to virus writers, hence increases in the prevalence of exploits. They claim that popular closed source systems such as Windows are often exploited by claiming that these systems are only commonly exploited due to their popularity and the potential widespread effect such an exploit will have.

Anti-virus software and other countermeasures

There are two common methods that an anti-virus software application uses to detect viruses. The first, and by far the most common method of virus detection is using a list of virus signature definitions. The disadvantage of this detection method is that users are only protected from viruses that pre-date their last virus definition update. The second method is to use a heuristic algorithm to find viruses based on common behaviors. This method has the ability to detect viruses that anti-virus security firms’ have yet to create a signature for.

Many users install anti-virus software that can detect and eliminate known viruses after the computer downloads or runs the executable. They work by examining the content heuristics of the computer's memory (its RAM, and boot sectors) and the files stored on fixed or removable drives (hard drives, floppy drives), and comparing those files against a database of known virus "signatures". Some anti-virus programs are able to scan opened files in addition to sent and received emails 'on the fly' in a similar manner. This practice is known as "on-access scanning." Anti-virus software does not change the underlying capability of host software to transmit viruses. There have been attempts to do this but adoption of such anti-virus solutions can void the warranty for the host software. Users must therefore update their software regularly to patch security holes. Anti-virus software also needs to be regularly updated in order to gain knowledge about the latest threats.

One may also prevent the damage done by viruses by making regular backups of data (and the Operating Systems) on different media, that are either kept unconnected to the system (most of the time), read-only or not accessible for other reasons, such as using different file systems. This way, if data is lost through a virus, one can start again using the backup (which should preferably be recent). If a backup session on optical media like cd and dvd is closed, it becomes read-only and can no longer be affected by a virus. Likewise, an Operating System on a live cd can be used to start the computer if the installed Operating Systems become unusable. Another method is to use different Operating Systems on different file systems. A virus is not likely to affect both. Data backups can also be put on different file systems. For example, Linux requires specific software to write to NTFS partitions, so if one does not install such software and uses a separate installation of MS Windows to make the backups on an ntfs partition (and preferably only for that reason), the backup should remain safe from any Linux viruses. Likewise, MS Windows can not read file systems like ext3, so if one normally uses MS Windows, the backups can be made on an ext3 partition using a Linux installation.

See also

References

  1. ^ Kaspersky Lab. Companion virus. Glossary.
  2. ^ Vesselin Bontchev. Macro Virus Identification Problems. FRISK Software International.
  3. ^ "Why people write computer viruses", BBC News, August 23, 2003.
  4. ^ Malware Evolution: MacOS X Vulnerabilities 2005 - 2006. Kaspersky Lab (July 24, 2006). Retrieved on August 19, 2006.
  5. ^ McAfee. McAfee discovers frirst Linux virus. news article.
  6. ^ Axel Boldt. Bliss, a Linux "virus". news article.

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