Home > Articles

  • Print
  • + Share This
  • 💬 Discuss
This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

VIRUSES AND OTHER MALICIOUS CODE

By themselves, programs are seldom security threats. The programs operate on data, taking action only when data and state changes trigger it. Much of the work done by a program is invisible to users, so they are not likely to be aware of any malicious activity. For instance, when was the last time you saw a bit? Do you know in what form a document file is stored? If you know a document resides somewhere on a disk, can you find it? Can you tell if a game program does anything in addition to its expected interaction with you? Which files are modified by a word processor when you create a document? Most users cannot answer these questions. However, since computer data are not usually seen directly by users, malicious people can make programs serve as vehicles to access and change data and other programs. Let us look at the possible effects of malicious code and then examine in detail several kinds of programs that can be used for interception or modification of data.

Why Worry About Malicious Code?

None of us likes the unexpected, especially in our programs. Malicious code behaves in unexpected ways, thanks to a malicious programmer's intention. We think of the malicious code as lurking inside our system: all or some of a program that we are running or even a nasty part of a separate program that somehow attaches itself to another (good) program.

Sidebar 3-3 Nonmalicious Flaws Cause Failures

In 1989 Crocker and Bernstein [CRO89] studied the root causes of the known catastrophic failures of what was then called the ARPANET, the predecessor of today's Internet. From its initial deployment in 1969 to 1989, the authors found 17 flaws that either did cause or could have caused catastrophic failure of the network. They use "catastrophic failure" to mean a situation that causes the entire network or a significant portion of it to fail to deliver network service.

The ARPANET was the first network of its sort, in which data are communicated as independent blocks (called "packets") that can be sent along different network routes and are reassembled at the destination. As might be expected, faults in the novel algorithms for delivery and reassembly were the source of several failures. Hardware failures were also significant. But as the network grew from its initial three nodes to dozens and hundreds, these problems were identified and fixed.

More than ten years after the network was born, three interesting nonmalicious flaws appeared. The initial implementation had fixed sizes and positions of the code and data. In 1986, a piece of code was loaded into memory in a way that overlapped a piece of security code. Only one critical node had that code configuration, and so only that one node would fail, which made it difficult to determine the cause of the failure.

In 1987, new code caused Sun computers connected to the network to fail to communicate. The first explanation was that the developers of the new Sun code had written the system to function as other manufacturers' code did, not necessarily as the specification dictated. It was later found that the developers had optimized the code incorrectly, leaving out some states the system could reach. But the first explanation—designing to practice, not to specification—is a common failing.

The last reported failure occurred in 1988. When the system was designed in 1969, developers specified that the number of connections to a subnetwork, and consequently the number of entries in a table of connections, was limited to 347, based on analysis of the expected topology. After 20 years, people had forgotten the (undocumented) limit, and a 348th connection was added, which caused the table to overflow and the system to fail. But the system derived this table gradually by communicating with neighboring nodes. So when any node's table reached 348 entries, it crashed, and when restarted it started building its table anew. Thus, nodes throughout the system would crash seemingly randomly after running perfectly well for a while (with unfull tables).

None of these flaws were malicious nor could they have been exploited by a malicious attacker to cause a failure. But they show the importance of the analysis, design, documentation, and maintenance steps in development of a large, long-lived system.

How can such a situation arise? When you last installed a major software package, such as a word processor, a statistical package, or a plug-in from the Internet, you ran one command, typically called INSTALL or SETUP. From there, the installation program took control, creating some files, writing in other files, deleting data and files, and perhaps renaming a few that it would change. A few minutes and a quite a few disk accesses later, you had plenty of new code and data, all set up for you with a minimum of human intervention. Other than the general descriptions on the box, in the documentation files, or on the web pages, you had absolutely no idea exactly what "gifts" you had received. You hoped all you received was good, and it probably was. The same uncertainty exists when you unknowingly download an application, such as a Java applet or an ActiveX control, while viewing a web site. Thousands or even millions of bytes of programs and data are transferred, and hundreds of modifications may be made to your existing files, all occurring without your explicit consent or knowledge.

Malicious Code Can Do Much (Harm)

Malicious code can do anything any other program can, such as writing a message on a computer screen, stopping a running program, generating a sound, or erasing a stored file. Or malicious code can do nothing at all right now; it can be planted to lie dormant, undetected, until some event triggers the code to act. The trigger can be a time or date, an interval (for example, after 30 minutes), an event (for example, when a particular program is executed), a condition (for example, when communication occurs on a modem), a count (for example, the fifth time something happens), some combination of these, or a random situation. In fact, malicious code can do different things each time, or nothing most of the time with something dramatic on occasion. In general, malicious code can act with all the predictability of a two-year-old child: We know in general what two-year-olds do, we may even know what a specific two-year-old often does in certain situations, but two-year-olds have an amazing capacity to do the unexpected.

Malicious code runs under the user's authority. Thus, malicious code can touch everything the user can touch, and in the same ways. Users typically have complete control over their own program code and data files; they can read, write, modify, append, and even delete them. And well they should. But malicious code can do the same, without the user's permission or even knowledge.

Malicious Code Has Been Around a Long Time

The popular literature and press continue to highlight the effects of malicious code as if it were a relatively recent phenomenon. It is not. Cohen [COH84] is sometimes credited with the discovery of viruses, but in fact Cohen gave a name to a phenomenon known long before. For example, Thompson, in his 1984 Turing Award lecture, "Reflections on Trusting Trust" [THO84], described code that can be passed by a compiler. In that lecture, he refers to an earlier Air Force document, the Multics security evaluation [KAR74, KAR02]. In fact, references to virus behavior go back at least to 1970. Ware's 1970 study (publicly released in 1979 [WAR79]) and Anderson's planning study for the U.S. Air Force [AND72] (to which Schell also refers) still accurately describe threats, vulnerabilities, and program security flaws, especially intentional ones. What is new about malicious code is the number of distinct instances and copies that have appeared.

So malicious code is still around, and its effects are more pervasive. It is important for us to learn what it looks like and how it works, so that we can take steps to prevent it from doing damage or at least mediate its effects. How can malicious code take control of a system? How can it lodge in a system? How does malicious code spread? How can it be recognized? How can it be detected? How can it be stopped? How can it be prevented? We address these questions in the following sections.

Kinds of Malicious Code

Malicious code or a rogue program is the general name for unanticipated or undesired effects in programs or program parts, caused by an agent intent on damage. This definition eliminates unintentional errors, although they can also have a serious negative effect. This definition also excludes coincidence, in which two benign programs combine for a negative effect. The agent is the writer of the program or the person who causes its distribution. By this definition, most faults found in software inspections, reviews, and testing do not qualify as malicious code, because we think of them as unintentional. However, keep in mind as you read this chapter that unintentional faults can in fact invoke the same responses as intentional malevolence; a benign cause can still lead to a disastrous effect.

You are likely to have been affected by a virus at one time or another, either because your computer was infected by one or because you could not access an infected system while its administrators were cleaning up the mess one made. In fact, your virus might actually have been a worm: The terminology of malicious code is sometimes used imprecisely. A virus is a program that can pass on malicious code to other nonmalicious programs by modifying them. The term "virus" was coined because the affected program acts like a biological virus: It infects other healthy subjects by attaching itself to the program and either destroying it or coexisting with it. Because viruses are insidious, we cannot assume that a clean program yesterday is still clean today. Moreover, a good program can be modified to include a copy of the virus program, so the infected good program itself begins to act as a virus, infecting other programs. The infection usually spreads at a geometric rate, eventually overtaking an entire computing system and spreading to all other connected systems.

A virus can be either transient or resident. A transient virus has a life that depends on the life of its host; the virus runs when its attached program executes and terminates when its attached program ends. (During its execution, the transient virus may have spread its infection to other programs.) A resident virus locates itself in memory; then it can remain active or be activated as a stand-alone program, even after its attached program ends.

A Trojan horse is malicious code that, in addition to its primary effect, has a second, nonobvious malicious effect.1 As an example of a computer Trojan horse,

A logic bomb is a class of malicious code that "detonates" or goes off when a specified condition occurs. A time bomb is a logic bomb whose trigger is a time or date.

A trapdoor or backdoor is a feature in a program by which someone can access the program other than by the obvious, direct call, perhaps with special privileges. For instance, an automated bank teller program might allow anyone entering the number 990099 on the keypad to process the log of everyone's transactions at that machine. In this example, the trapdoor could be intentional, for maintenance purposes, or it could be an illicit way for the implementer to wipe out any record of a crime.

A worm is a program that spreads copies of itself through a network. The primary difference between a worm and a virus is that a worm operates through networks, and a virus can spread through any medium (but usually uses copied program or data files). Additionally, the worm spreads copies of itself as a stand-alone program, whereas the virus spreads copies of itself as a program that attaches to or embeds in other programs.

White et al. [WHI89] also define a rabbit as a virus or worm that self-replicates without bound, with the intention of exhausting some computing resource. A rabbit might create copies of itself and store them on disk, in an effort to completely fill the disk, for example.

These definitions match current careful usage. The distinctions among these terms are small, and often the terms are confused, especially in the popular press. The term "virus" is often used to refer to any piece of malicious code. Furthermore, two or more forms of malicious code can be combined to produce a third kind of problem. For instance, a virus can be a time bomb if the viral code that is spreading will trigger an event after a period of time has passed. The kinds of malicious code are summarized in Table 3-1.

TABLE 3-1 Types of Malicious Code.

Code Type

Characteristics

Virus

Attaches itself to program and propagates copies of itself to other programs

Trojan horse

Contains unexpected, additional functionality

Logic bomb

Triggers action when condition occurs

Time bomb

Triggers action when specified time occurs

Trapdoor

Allows unauthorized access to functionality

Worm

Propagates copies of itself through a network

Rabbit

Replicates itself without limit to exhaust resource


Because "virus" is the popular name given to all forms of malicious code and because fuzzy lines exist between different kinds of malicious code, we will not be too restrictive in the following discussion. We want to look at how malicious code spreads, how it is activated, and what effect it can have. A virus is a convenient term for mobile malicious code, and so in the following sections we use the term "virus" almost exclusively. The points made apply also to other forms of malicious code.

How Viruses Attach

A printed copy of a virus does nothing and threatens no one. Even executable virus code sitting on a disk does nothing. What triggers a virus to start replicating? For a virus to do its malicious work and spread itself, it must be activated by being executed. Fortunately for virus writers, but unfortunately for the rest of us, there are many ways to ensure that programs will be executed on a running computer.

For example, recall the SETUP program that you initiate on your computer. It may call dozens or hundreds of other programs, some on the distribution medium, some already residing on the computer, some in memory. If any one of these programs contains a virus, the virus code could be activated. Let us see how. Suppose the virus code were in a program on the distribution medium, such as a CD; when executed, the virus could install itself on a permanent storage medium (typically, a hard disk), and also in any and all executing programs in memory. Human intervention is necessary to start the process; a human being puts the virus on the distribution medium, and perhaps another initiates the execution of the program to which the virus is attached. (It is possible for execution to occur without human intervention, though, such as when execution is triggered by a date or the passage of a certain amount of time.) After that, no human intervention is needed; the virus can spread by itself.

A more common means of virus activation is as an attachment to an e-mail message. In this attack, the virus writer tries to convince the victim (the recipient of an e-mail message) to open the attachment. Once the viral attachment is opened, the activated virus can do its work. Some modern e-mail handlers, in a drive to "help" the receiver (victim), will automatically open attachments as soon as the receiver opens the body of the e-mail message. The virus can be executable code embedded in an executable attachment, but other types of files are equally dangerous. For example, objects such as graphics or photo images can contain code to be executed by an editor, so they can be transmission agents for viruses. In general, it is safer to force users to open files on their own rather than automatically; it is a bad idea for programs to perform potentially security-relevant actions without a user's consent.

Appended Viruses

A program virus attaches itself to a program; then, whenever the program is run, the virus is activated. This kind of attachment is usually easy to program.

In the simplest case, a virus inserts a copy of itself into the executable program file before the first executable instruction. Then, all the virus instructions execute first; after the last virus instruction, control flows naturally to what used to be the first program instruction. Such a situation is shown in Figure 3-4.

Figure 4FIGURE 3-4 Virus Appended to a Program.

This kind of attachment is simple and usually effective. The virus writer does not need to know anything about the program to which the virus will attach, and often the attached program simply serves as a carrier for the virus. The virus performs its task and then transfers to the original program. Typically, the user is unaware of the effect of the virus if the original program still does all that it used to. Most viruses attach in this manner.

Viruses That Surround a Program

An alternative to the attachment is a virus that runs the original program but has control before and after its execution. For example, a virus writer might want to prevent the virus from being detected. If the virus is stored on disk, its presence will be given away by its file name, or its size will affect the amount of space used on the disk. The virus writer might arrange for the virus to attach itself to the program that constructs the listing of files on the disk. If the virus regains control after the listing program has generated the listing but before the listing is displayed or printed, the virus could eliminate its entry from the listing and falsify space counts so that it appears not to exist. A surrounding virus is shown in Figure 3-5.

Figure 5FIGURE 3-5 Virus Surrounding a Program.

Integrated Viruses and Replacements

A third situation occurs when the virus replaces some of its target, integrating itself into the original code of the target. Such a situation is shown in Figure 3-6. Clearly, the virus writer has to know the exact structure of the original program to know where to insert which pieces of the virus.

Figure 6FIGURE 3-6 Virus Integrated into a Program.

Finally, the virus can replace the entire target, either mimicking the effect of the target or ignoring the expected effect of the target and performing only the virus effect. In this case, the user is most likely to perceive the loss of the original program.

Document Viruses

Currently, the most popular virus type is what we call the document virus, which is implemented within a formatted document, such as a written document, a database, a slide presentation, or a spreadsheet. These documents are highly structured files that contain both data (words or numbers) and commands (such as formulas, formatting controls, links). The commands are part of a rich programming language, including macros, variables and procedures, file accesses, and even system calls. The writer of a document virus uses any of the features of the programming language to perform malicious actions.

The ordinary user usually sees only the content of the document (its text or data), so the virus writer simply includes the virus in the commands part of the document, as in the integrated program virus.

How Viruses Gain Control

The virus (V) has to be invoked instead of the target (T). Essentially, the virus either has to seem to be T, saying effectively "I am T" (like some rock stars, where the target is the artiste formerly known as T) or the virus has to push T out of the way and become a substitute for T, saying effectively "Call me instead of T." A more blatant virus can simply say "invoke me [you fool]." The virus can assume T's name by replacing (or joining to) T's code in a file structure; this invocation technique is most appropriate for ordinary programs. The virus can overwrite T in storage (simply replacing the copy of T in storage, for example). Alternatively, the virus can change the pointers in the file table so that the virus is located instead of T whenever T is accessed through the file system. These two cases are shown in Figure 3-7.

Figure 7FIGURE 3-7 Virus Completely Replacing a Program.

The virus can supplant T by altering the sequence that would have invoked T to now invoke the virus V; this invocation can be used to replace parts of the resident operating system by modifying pointers to those resident parts, such as the table of handlers for different kinds of interrupts.

Homes for Viruses

The virus writer may find these qualities appealing in a virus:

  • It is hard to detect.

  • It is not easily destroyed or deactivated.

  • It spreads infection widely.

  • It can reinfect its home program or other programs.

  • It is easy to create.

  • It is machine independent and operating system independent.

Few viruses meet all these criteria. The virus writer chooses from these objectives when deciding what the virus will do and where it will reside.

Just a few years ago, the challenge for the virus writer was to write code that would be executed repeatedly so that the virus could multiply. Now, however, one execution is enough to ensure widespread distribution. Many viruses are transmitted by e-mail, using either of two routes. In the first case, some virus writers generate a new e-mail message to all addresses in the victim's address book. These new messages contain a copy of the virus so that it propagates widely. Often the message is a brief, chatty, non-specific message that would encourage the new recipient to open the attachment from a friend (the first recipient). For example, the subject line or message body may read "I thought you might enjoy this picture from our vacation." In the second case, the virus writer can leave the infected file for the victim to forward unknowingly. If the virus's effect is not immediately obvious, the victim may pass the infected file unwittingly to other victims.

Let us look more closely at the issue of viral residence.

One-Time Execution

The majority of viruses today execute only once, spreading their infection and causing their effect in that one execution. A virus often arrives as an e-mail attachment of a document virus. It is executed just by being opened.

Boot Sector Viruses

A special case of virus attachment, but formerly a fairly popular one, is the so-called boot sector virus. When a computer is started, control begins with firmware that determines which hardware components are present, tests them, and transfers control to an operating system. A given hardware platform can run many different operating systems, so the operating system is not coded in firmware but is instead invoked dynamically, perhaps even by a user's choice, after the hardware test.

The operating system is software stored on disk. Code copies the operating system from disk to memory and transfers control to it; this copying is called the bootstrap (often boot) load because the operating system figuratively pulls itself into memory by its bootstraps. The firmware does its control transfer by reading a fixed number of bytes from a fixed location on the disk (called the boot sector) to a fixed address in memory and then jumping to that address (which will turn out to contain the first instruction of the bootstrap loader). The bootstrap loader then reads into memory the rest of the operating system from disk. To run a different operating system, the user just inserts a disk with the new operating system and a bootstrap loader. When the user reboots from this new disk, the loader there brings in and runs another operating system. This same scheme is used for personal computers, workstations, and large mainframes.

To allow for change, expansion, and uncertainty, hardware designers reserve a large amount of space for the bootstrap load. The boot sector on a PC is slightly less than 512 bytes, but since the loader will be larger than that, the hardware designers support "chaining," in which each block of the bootstrap is chained to (contains the disk location of) the next block. This chaining allows big bootstraps but also simplifies the installation of a virus. The virus writer simply breaks the chain at any point, inserts a pointer to the virus code to be executed, and reconnects the chain after the virus has been installed. This situation is shown in Figure 3-8.

Figure 8FIGURE 3-8 Boot Sector Virus Relocating Code.

The boot sector is an especially appealing place to house a virus. The virus gains control very early in the boot process, before most detection tools are active, so that it can avoid, or at least complicate, detection. The files in the boot area are crucial parts of the operating system. Consequently, to keep users from accidentally modifying or deleting them with disastrous results, the operating system makes them "invisible" by not showing them as part of a normal listing of stored files, preventing their deletion. Thus, the virus code is not readily noticed by users.

Memory-Resident Viruses

Some parts of the operating system and most user programs execute, terminate, and disappear, with their space in memory being available for anything executed later. For very frequently used parts of the operating system and for a few specialized user programs, it would take too long to reload the program each time it was needed. Such code remains in memory and is called "resident" code. Examples of resident code are the routine that interprets keys pressed on the keyboard, the code that handles error conditions that arise during a program's execution, or a program that acts like an alarm clock, sounding a signal at a time the user determines. Resident routines are sometimes called TSRs or "terminate and stay resident" routines.

Virus writers also like to attach viruses to resident code because the resident code is activated many times while the machine is running. Each time the resident code runs, the virus does too. Once activated, the virus can look for and infect uninfected carriers. For example, after activation, a boot sector virus might attach itself to a piece of resident code. Then, each time the virus was activated it might check whether any removable disk in a disk drive was infected and, if not, infect it. In this way the virus could spread its infection to all removable disks used during the computing session.

Other Homes for Viruses

A virus that does not take up residence in one of these cozy establishments has to fend more for itself. But that is not to say that the virus will go homeless.

One popular home for a virus is an application program. Many applications, such as word processors and spreadsheets, have a "macro" feature, by which a user can record a series of commands and repeat them with one invocation. Such programs also provide a "startup macro" that is executed every time the application is executed. A virus writer can create a virus macro that adds itself to the startup directives for the application. It also then embeds a copy of itself in data files so that the infection spreads to anyone receiving one or more of those files.

Libraries are also excellent places for malicious code to reside. Because libraries are used by many programs, the code in them will have a broad effect. Additionally, libraries are often shared among users and transmitted from one user to another, a practice that spreads the infection. Finally, executing code in a library can pass on the viral infection to other transmission media. Compilers, loaders, linkers, runtime monitors, runtime debuggers, and even virus control programs are good candidates for hosting viruses because they are widely shared.

Virus Signatures

A virus cannot be completely invisible. Code must be stored somewhere, and the code must be in memory to execute. Moreover, the virus executes in a particular way, using certain methods to spread. Each of these characteristics yields a telltale pattern, called a signature, that can be found by a program that knows to look for it. The virus's signature is important for creating a program, called a virus scanner, that can automatically detect and, in some cases, remove viruses. The scanner searches memory and long-term storage, monitoring execution and watching for the telltale signatures of viruses. For example, a scanner looking for signs of the Code Red worm can look for a pattern containing the following characters:

/default.ida?NNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNN
NNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNN
NNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNN
NNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNN
NNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNN
%u9090%u6858%ucbd3
%u7801%u9090%u6858%ucdb3%u7801%u9090%u6858
%ucbd3%u7801%u9090
%u9090%u8190%u00c3%u0003%ub00%u531b%u53ff
%u0078%u0000%u00=a
HTTP/1.0

When the scanner recognizes a known virus's pattern, it can then block the virus, inform the user, and deactivate or remove the virus. However, a virus scanner is effective only if it has been kept up-to-date with the latest information on current viruses. Side-bar 3-4 describes how viruses were the primary security breach among companies surveyed in 2001.

Sidebar 3-4 The Viral Threat

Information Week magazine reports that viruses, worms, and Trojan horses represented the primary method for breaching security among the 4,500 security professionals surveyed in 2001 [HUL01c]. Almost 70 percent of the respondents noted that virus, worm, and Trojan horse attacks occurred in the 12 months before April 2001. Second were the 15 percent of attacks using denial of service; telecommunications or unauthorized entry was responsible for 12 percent of the attacks. (Multiple responses were allowed.) These figures represent establishments in 42 countries throughout North America, South America, Europe, and Asia.

Storage Patterns

Most viruses attach to programs that are stored on media such as disks. The attached virus piece is invariant, so that the start of the virus code becomes a detectable signature. The attached piece is always located at the same position relative to its attached file. For example, the virus might always be at the beginning, 400 bytes from the top, or at the bottom of the infected file. Most likely, the virus will be at the beginning of the file, because the virus writer wants to obtain control of execution before the bona fide code of the infected program is in charge. In the simplest case, the virus code sits at the top of the program, and the entire virus does its malicious duty before the normal code is invoked. In other cases, the virus infection consists of only a handful of instructions that point or jump to other, more detailed instructions elsewhere. For example, the infected code may consist of condition testing and a jump or call to a separate virus module. In either case, the code to which control is transferred will also have a recognizable pattern. Both of these situations are shown in Figure 3-9.

Figure 9FIGURE 3-9 Recognizable Patterns in Viruses.

A virus may attach itself to a file, in which case the file's size grows. Or the virus may obliterate all or part of the underlying program, in which case the program's size does not change but the program's functioning will be impaired. The virus writer has to choose one of these detectable effects.

The virus scanner can use a code or checksum to detect changes to a file. It can also look for suspicious patterns, such as a JUMP instruction as the first instruction of a system program (in case the virus has positioned itself at the bottom of the file but wants to be executed first, as in Figure 3-9).

Execution Patterns

A virus writer may want a virus to do several things at the same time, namely, spread infection, avoid detection, and cause harm. These goals are shown in Table 3-2, along with ways each goal can be addressed. Unfortunately, many of these behaviors are perfectly normal and might otherwise go undetected. For instance, one goal is modifying the file directory; many normal programs create files, delete files, and write to storage media. Thus, there are no key signals that point to the presence of a virus.

Most virus writers seek to avoid detection for themselves and their creations. Because a disk's boot sector is not visible to normal operations (for example, the contents of the boot sector do not show on a directory listing), many virus writers hide their code there. A resident virus can monitor disk accesses and fake the result of a disk operation that would show the virus hidden in a boot sector by showing the data that should have been in the boot sector (which the virus has moved elsewhere).

There are no limits to the harm a virus can cause. On the modest end, the virus might do nothing; some writers create viruses just to show they can do it. Or the virus can be relatively benign, displaying a message on the screen, sounding the buzzer, or playing music. From there, the problems can escalate. One virus can erase files, another an entire disk; one virus can prevent a computer from booting, and another can prevent writing to disk. The damage is bounded only by the creativity of the virus's author.

TABLE 3-2 Virus Effects and Causes.

Virus Effect

How It Is Caused

Attach to executable program

  • Modify file directory
  • Write to executable program file

Attach to data or control file

  • Modify directory
  • Rewrite data
  • Append to data
  • Append data to self

Remain in memory handler address table

  • Intercept interrupt by modifying interrupt
  • Load self in nontransient memory area

Infect disks

  • Intercept interrupt
  • Intercept operating system call (to format disk, for example)
  • Modify system file
  • Modify ordinary executable program

Conceal self falsify result

  • Intercept system calls that would reveal self and
  • Classify self as "hidden" file

Spread infection

  • Infect boot sector
  • Infect systems program
  • Infect ordinary program
  • Infect data ordinary program reads to control its execution

Prevent deactivation deactivation

  • Activate before deactivating program and block
  • Store copy to reinfect after deactivation

Section 3.3 Viruses and Other Malicious Code

Transmission Patterns

A virus is effective only if it has some means of transmission from one location to another. As we have already seen, viruses can travel during the boot process, by attaching to an executable file or traveling within data files. The travel itself occurs during execution of an already infected program. Since a virus can execute any instructions a program can, virus travel is not confined to any single medium or execution pattern. For example, a virus can arrive on a diskette or from a network connection, travel during its host's execution to a hard disk boot sector, reemerge next time the host computer is booted, and remain in memory to infect other diskettes as they are accessed.

Polymorphic Viruses

The virus signature may be the most reliable way for a virus scanner to identify a virus. If a particular virus always begins with the string 47F0F00E08 (in hexadecimal) and has string 00113FFF located at word 12, it is unlikely that other programs or data files will have these exact characteristics. For longer signatures, the probability of a correct match increases.

If the virus scanner will always look for those strings, then the clever virus writer can cause something other than those strings to be in those positions. For example, the virus could have two alternative but equivalent beginning words; after being installed, the virus will choose one of the two words for its initial word. Then, a virus scanner would have to look for both patterns. A virus that can change its appearance is called a polymorphic virus. (Poly means "many" and morph means "form".) A two-form polymorphic virus can be handled easily as two independent viruses. Therefore, the virus writer intent on preventing detection of the virus will want either a large or an unlimited number of forms so that the number of possible forms is too large for a virus scanner to search for. Simply embedding a random number or string at a fixed place in the executable version of a virus is not sufficient, because the signature of the virus is just the constant code excluding the random part. A polymorphic virus has to randomly reposition all parts of itself and randomly change all fixed data. Thus, instead of containing the fixed (and therefore searchable) string "HA! INFECTED BY A VIRUS," a polymorphic virus has to change even that pattern sometimes.

Trivially, assume a virus writer has 100 bytes of code and 50 bytes of data. To make two virus instances different, the writer might distribute the first version as 100 bytes of code followed by all 50 bytes of data. A second version could be 99 bytes of code, a jump instruction, 50 bytes of data, and the last byte of code. Other versions are 98 code bytes jumping to the last two, 97 and three, and so forth. Just by moving pieces around the virus writer can create enough different appearances to fool simple virus scanners. Once the scanner writers became aware of these kinds of tricks, however, they refined their signature definitions.

A more sophisticated polymorphic virus randomly intersperses harmless instructions throughout its code. Examples of harmless instructions include addition of zero to a number, movement of a data value to its own location, or a jump to the next instruction. These "extra" instructions make it more difficult to locate an invariant signature.

A simple variety of polymorphic virus uses encryption under various keys to make the stored form of the virus different. These are sometimes called encrypting viruses. This type of virus must contain three distinct parts: a decryption key, the (encrypted) object code of the virus, and the (unencrypted) object code of the decryption routine. For these viruses, the decryption routine itself or a call to a decryption library routine must be in the clear, and so that becomes the signature.

To avoid detection, not every copy of a polymorphic virus has to differ from every other copy. If the virus changes occasionally, not every copy will match a signature of every other copy.

The Source of Viruses

Since a virus can be rather small, its code can be "hidden" inside other larger and more complicated programs. Two hundred lines of a virus could be separated into one hundred packets of two lines of code and a jump each; these one hundred packets could be easily hidden inside a compiler, a database manager, a file manager, or some other large utility.

Virus discovery could be aided by a procedure to determine if two programs are equivalent. However, theoretical results in computing are very discouraging when it comes to the complexity of the equivalence problem. The general question, "are these two programs equivalent?" is undecidable (although that question can be answered for many specific pairs of programs). Even ignoring the general undecidability problem, two modules may produce subtly different results that may—or may not—be security relevant. One may run faster, or the first may use a temporary file for work space whereas the second performs all its computations in memory. These differences could be benign, or they could be a marker of an infection. Therefore, we are unlikely to develop a screening program that can separate infected modules from uninfected ones.

Although the general is dismaying, the particular is not. If we know that a particular virus may infect a computing system, we can check for it and detect it if it is there. Having found the virus, however, we are left with the task of cleansing the system of it. Removing the virus in a running system requires being able to detect and eliminate its instances faster than it can spread.

Prevention of Virus Infection

The only way to prevent the infection of a virus is not to share executable code with an infected source. This philosophy used to be easy to follow because it was easy to tell if a file was executable or not. For example, on PCs, a .exe extension was a clear sign that the file was executable. However, as we have noted, today's files are more complex, and a seemingly nonexecutable file may have some executable code buried deep within it. For example, a word processor may have commands within the document file; as we noted earlier, these commands, called macros, make it easy for the user to do complex or repetitive things. But they are really executable code embedded in the context of the document. Similarly, spreadsheets, presentation slides, and other office- or business-related files can contain code or scripts that can be executed in various ways—and thereby harbor viruses. And, as we have seen, the applications that run or use these files may try to be helpful by automatically invoking the executable code, whether you want it run or not! Against the principles of good security, e-mail handlers can be set to automatically open (without performing access control) attachments or embedded code for the recipient, so your e-mail message can have animated bears dancing across the top.

Another approach virus writers have used is a little-known feature in the Microsoft file design. Although a file with a .doc extension is expected to be a Word document, in fact, the true document type is hidden in a field at the start of the file. This convenience ostensibly helps a user who inadvertently names a Word document with a .ppt (Power-Point) or any other extension. In some cases, the operating system will try to open the associated application but, if that fails, the system will switch to the application of the hidden file type. So, the virus writer creates an executable file, names it with an inappropriate extension, and sends it to the victim, describing it is as a picture or a necessary code add-in or something else desirable. The unwitting recipient opens the file and, without intending to, executes the malicious code.

More recently, executable code has been hidden in files containing large data sets, such as pictures or read-only documents. These bits of viral code are not easily detected by virus scanners and certainly not by the human eye. For example, a file containing a photograph may be highly granular; if every sixteenth bit is part of a command string that can be executed, then the virus is very difficult to detect.

Since you cannot always know which sources are infected, you should assume that any outside source is infected. Fortunately, you know when you are receiving code from an outside source; unfortunately, it is not feasible to cut off all contact with the outside world.

In their interesting paper comparing computer virus transmission with human disease transmission, Kephart et al. [KEP93] observe that individuals' efforts to keep their computers free from viruses lead to communities that are generally free from viruses because members of the community have little (electronic) contact with the outside world. In this case, transmission is contained not because of limited contact but because of limited contact outside the community. Governments, for military or diplomatic secrets, often run disconnected network communities. The trick seems to be in choosing one's community prudently. However, as use of the Internet and the World Wide Web increases, such separation is almost impossible to maintain.

Nevertheless, there are several techniques for building a reasonably safe community for electronic contact, including the following:

  • Use only commercial software acquired from reliable, well-established vendors. There is always a chance that you might receive a virus from a large manufacturer with a name everyone would recognize. However, such enterprises have significant reputations that could be seriously damaged by even one bad incident, so they go to some degree of trouble to keep their products virus-free and to patch any problem-causing code right away. Similarly, software distribution companies will be careful about products they handle.

  • Test all new software on an isolated computer. If you must use software from a questionable source, test the software first on a computer with no hard disk, not connected to a network, and with the boot disk removed. Run the software and look for unexpected behavior, even simple behavior such as unexplained figures on the screen. Test the computer with a copy of an up-to-date virus scanner, created before running the suspect program. Only if the program passes these tests should it be installed on a less isolated machine.

  • Open attachments only when you know them to be safe. What constitutes "safe" is up to you, as you have probably already learned in this chapter. Certainly, an attachment from an unknown source is of questionable safety. You might also distrust an attachment from a known source but with a peculiar message.

  • Make a recoverable system image and store it safely. If your system does become infected, this clean version will let you reboot securely because it overwrites the corrupted system files with clean copies. For this reason, you must keep the image write-protected during reboot. Prepare this image now, before infection; after infection it is too late. For safety, prepare an extra copy of the safe boot image.

  • Make and retain backup copies of executable system files. This way, in the event of a virus infection, you can remove infected files and reinstall from the clean backup copies (stored in a secure, offline location, of course).

  • Use virus detectors (often called virus scanners) regularly and update them daily. Many of the virus detectors available can both detect and eliminate infection from viruses. Several scanners are better than one, because one may detect the viruses that others miss. Because scanners search for virus signatures, they are constantly being revised as new viruses are discovered. New virus signature files, or new versions of scanners, are distributed frequently; often, you can request automatic downloads from the vendor's web site. Keep your detector's signature file up-to-date.

Truths and Misconceptions About Viruses

Because viruses often have a dramatic impact on the computer-using community, they are often highlighted in the press, particularly in the business section. However, there is much misinformation in circulation about viruses. Let us examine some of the popular claims about them.

  • Viruses can infect only Microsoft Windows systems. False. Among students and office workers, PCs are popular computers, and there may be more people writing software (and viruses) for them than for any other kind of processor. Thus, the PC is most frequently the target when someone decides to write a virus. However, the principles of virus attachment and infection apply equally to other processors, including Macintosh computers, Unix workstations, and mainframe computers. In fact, no writeable stored-program computer is immune to possible virus attack. As we noted in Chapter 1, this situation means that all devices containing computer code, including automobiles, airplanes, microwave ovens, radios, televisions, and radiation therapy machines have the potential for being infected by a virus.

  • Viruses can modify "hidden" or "read only" files. True. We may try to protect files by using two operating system mechanisms. First, we can make a file a hidden file so that a user or program listing all files on a storage device will not see the file's name. Second, we can apply a read-only protection to the file so that the user cannot change the file's contents. However, each of these protections is applied by software, and virus software can override the native software's protection. Moreover, software protection is layered, with the operating system providing the most elementary protection. If a secure operating system obtains control before a virus contaminator has executed, the operating system can prevent contamination as long as it blocks the attacks the virus will make.

  • Viruses can appear only in data files, or only in Word documents, or only in programs. False. What are data? What is an executable file? The distinction between these two concepts is not always clear, because a data file can control how a program executes and even cause a program to execute. Sometimes a data file lists steps to be taken by the program that reads the data, and these steps can include executing a program. For example, some applications contain a configuration file whose data are exactly such steps. Similarly, word processing document files may contain startup commands to execute when the document is opened; these startup commands can contain malicious code. Although, strictly speaking, a virus can activate and spread only when a program executes, in fact, data files are acted upon by programs. Clever virus writers have been able to make data control files that cause programs to do many things, including pass along copies of the virus to other data files.

  • Viruses spread only on disks or only in e-mail. False. File-sharing is often done as one user provides a copy of a file to another user by writing the file on a transportable disk. However, any means of electronic file transfer will work. A file can be placed in a network's library or posted on a bulletin board. It can be attached to an electronic mail message or made available for download from a web site. Any mechanism for sharing files—of programs, data, documents, and so forth—can be used to transfer a virus.

  • Viruses cannot remain in memory after a complete power off/power on reboot. True. If a virus is resident in memory, the virus is lost when the memory loses power. That is, computer memory (RAM) is volatile, so that all contents are deleted when power is lost.2 However, viruses written to disk certainly can remain through a reboot cycle and reappear after the reboot. Thus, you can receive a virus infection, the virus can be written to disk (or to network storage), you can turn the machine off and back on, and the virus can be reactivated during the reboot. Boot sector viruses gain control when a machine reboots (whether it is a hardware or software reboot), so a boot sector virus may remain through a reboot cycle because it activates immediately when a reboot has completed.

  • Viruses cannot infect hardware. True. Viruses can infect only things they can modify; memory, executable files, and data are the primary targets. If hardware contains writeable storage (so-called firmware) that can be accessed under program control, that storage is subject to virus attack. There have been a few

  • Viruses can be malevolent, benign, or benevolent. True. Not all viruses are bad. For example, a virus might locate uninfected programs, compress them so that they occupy less memory, and insert a copy of a routine that decompresses the program when its execution begins. At the same time, the virus is spreading the compression function to other programs. This virus could substantially reduce the amount of storage required for stored programs, possibly by up to 50 percent. However, the compression would be done at the request of the virus, not at the request, or even knowledge, of the program owner.

To see how viruses and other types of malicious code operate, we examine four types of malicious code that affected many users worldwide: the Brain, the Internet worm, the Code Red worm, and web bugs.

First Example of Malicious Code: The Brain Virus

One of the earliest viruses is also one of the most intensively studied. The so-called Brain virus was given its name because it changes the label of any disk it attacks to the word "BRAIN." This particular virus, believed to have originated in Pakistan, attacks PCs running a Microsoft operating system. Numerous variants have been produced; because of the number of variants, people believe that the source code of the virus was released to the underground virus community.

What It Does

The Brain, like all viruses, seeks to pass on its infection. This virus first locates itself in upper memory and then executes a system call to reset the upper memory bound below itself, so that it is not disturbed as it works. It traps interrupt number 19 (disk read) by resetting the interrupt address table to point to it and then sets the address for interrupt number 6 (unused) to the former address of the interrupt 19. In this way, the virus screens disk read calls, handling any that would read the boot sector (passing back the original boot contents that were moved to one of the bad sectors); other disk calls go to the normal disk read handler, through interrupt 6.

The Brain virus appears to have no effect other than passing its infection, as if it were an experiment or a proof of concept. However, variants of the virus erase disks or destroy the file allocation table (the table that shows which files are where on a storage medium).

How It Spreads

The Brain virus positions itself in the boot sector and in six other sectors of the disk. One of the six sectors will contain the original boot code, moved there from the original boot sector, while two others contain the remaining code of the virus. The remaining three sectors contain a duplicate of the others. The virus marks these six sectors "faulty" so that the operating system will not try to use them. (With low-level calls, you can force the disk drive to read from what the operating system has marked as bad sectors.) The virus allows the boot process to continue.

Once established in memory, the virus intercepts disk read requests for the disk drive under attack. With each read, the virus reads the disk boot sector and inspects the fifth and sixth bytes for the hexadecimal value 1234 (its signature). If it finds that value, it concludes the disk is infected; if not, it infects the disk as described in the previous paragraph.

What Was Learned

This virus uses some of the standard tricks of viruses, such as hiding in the boot sector, and intercepting and screening interrupts. The virus is almost a prototype for later efforts. In fact, many other virus writers seem to have patterned their work on this basic virus. Thus, one could say it was a useful learning tool for the virus writer community.

Sadly, its infection did not raise public consciousness of viruses, other than a certain amount of fear and misunderstanding. Subsequent viruses, such as the Lehigh virus that swept through the computers of Lehigh University, the nVIR viruses that sprang from prototype code posted on bulletin boards, and the Scores virus that was first found at NASA in Washington D.C. circulated more widely and with greater effect. Fortunately, most viruses seen to date have a modest effect, such as displaying a message or emitting a sound. That is, however, a matter of luck, since the writers who could put together the simpler viruses obviously had all the talent and knowledge to make much more malevolent viruses.

There is no general cure for viruses. Virus scanners are effective against today's known viruses and general patterns of infection, but they cannot counter tomorrow's variant. The only sure prevention is complete isolation from outside contamination, which is not feasible; in fact, you may even get a virus from the software applications you buy from reputable vendors.

Another Example: The Internet Worm

On the evening of 2 November 1988, a worm was released to the Internet,3 causing serious damage to the network. Not only were many systems infected, but when word of the problem spread, many more uninfected systems severed their network connections to prevent themselves from getting infected. Gene Spafford and his team at Purdue University [SPA89] and Mark Eichen and Jon Rochlis at M.I.T [EIC89] studied the worm extensively.

The perpetrator was Robert T. Morris, Jr., a graduate student at Cornell University who created and released the worm. He was convicted in 1990 of violating the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, section 1030 of U.S. Code Title 18. He received a fine of $10,000, a three-year suspended jail sentence, and was required to perform 400 hours of community service.

What It Did

Judging from its code, Morris programmed the Internet worm to accomplish three main objectives:

  1. determine to where it could spread

  2. spread its infection

  3. remain undiscovered and undiscoverable

What Effect It Had

The worm's primary effect was resource exhaustion. Its source code indicated that the worm was supposed to check whether a target host was already infected; if so, the worm would negotiate so that either the existing infection or the new infector would terminate. However, because of a supposed flaw in the code, many new copies did not terminate. As a result, an infected machine soon became burdened with many copies of the worm, all busily attempting to spread the infection. Thus, the primary observable effect was serious degradation in performance of affected machines.

A second-order effect was the disconnection of many systems from the Internet. System administrators tried to sever their connection with the Internet, either because their machines were already infected and the system administrators wanted to keep the worm's processes from looking for sites to which to spread or because their machines were not yet infected and the staff wanted to avoid having them become so.

The disconnection led to a third-order effect: isolation and inability to perform necessary work. Disconnected systems could not communicate with other systems to carry on the normal research, collaboration, business, or information exchange users expected. System administrators on disconnected systems could not use the network to exchange information with their counterparts at other installations, so status and containment or recovery information was unavailable.

The worm caused an estimated 6,000 installations to shut down or disconnect from the Internet. In total, several thousand systems were disconnected for several days, and several hundred of these systems were closed to users for a day or more while they were disconnected. Estimates of the cost of damage range from $100,000 to $97 million.

How It Worked

The worm exploited several known flaws and configuration failures of Berkeley version 4 of the Unix operating system. It accomplished—or had code that appeared to try to accomplish—its three objectives.

Where to spread. The worm had three techniques for locating potential machines to victimize. It first tried to find user accounts to invade on the target machine. In parallel, the worm tried to exploit a bug in the finger program and then to use a trapdoor in the sendmail mail handler. All three of these security flaws were well known in the general Unix community.

The first security flaw was a joint user and system error, in which the worm tried guessing passwords and succeeded when it found one. The Unix password file is stored in encrypted form, but the ciphertext in the file is readable by anyone. (This visibility is the system error.) The worm encrypted various popular passwords and compared their ciphertext against the ciphertext of the stored password file. The worm tried the account name, the owner's name, and a short list of 432 common passwords (such as "guest," "password," "help," "coffee," "coke," "aaa"). If none of these succeeded, the worm used the dictionary file stored on the system for use by application spelling checkers. (Choosing a recognizable password is the user error.) When it got a match, the worm could log in to the corresponding account by presenting the plaintext password. Then, as a user, the worm could look for other machines to which the user could obtain access. (See the article by Robert T. Morris, Sr. and Ken Thompson [MOR79] on selection of good passwords, published a decade before the worm.) The second flaw concerned fingerd, the program that runs continuously to respond to other computers' requests for information about system users. The security flaw involved causing the input buffer to overflow, spilling into the return address stack. Thus, when the finger call terminated, fingerd executed instructions that had been pushed there as another part of the buffer overflow, causing the worm to be connected to a remote shell.

The third flaw involved a trapdoor in the sendmail program. Ordinarily, this program runs in the background, awaiting signals from others wanting to send mail to the system. When it receives such a signal, sendmail gets a destination address, which it verifies, and then begins a dialog to receive the message. However, when running in debugging mode, the worm caused sendmail to receive and execute a command string instead of the destination address.

Spread infection. Having found a suitable target machine, the worm would use one of these three methods to send a bootstrap loader to the target machine. This loader consisted of 99 lines of C code to be compiled and executed on the target machine. The bootstrap loader would then fetch the rest of the worm from the sending host machine. There was an element of good computer security—or stealth—built into the exchange between the host and the target. When the target's bootstrap requested the rest of the worm, the worm supplied a one-time password back to the host. Without this password, the host would immediately break the connection to the target, presumably in an effort to ensure against "rogue" bootstraps (ones that a real administrator might develop to try to obtain a copy of the rest of the worm for subsequent analysis).

Remain undiscovered and undiscoverable. The worm went to considerable lengths to prevent its discovery once established on a host. For instance, if a transmission error occurred while the rest of the worm was being fetched, the loader zeroed and then deleted all code already transferred and exited.

As soon as the worm received its full code, it brought the code into memory, encrypted it, and deleted the original copies from disk. Thus, no traces were left on disk, and even a memory dump would not readily expose the worm's code. The worm periodically changed its name and process identifier so that no single name would run up a large amount of computing time.

What Was Learned

The Internet worm sent a shock wave through the Internet community, which at that time was largely populated by academics and researchers. The affected sites closed some of the loopholes exploited by the worm and generally tightened security. Some users changed passwords. COPS, an automated security-checking program, was developed to check for some of the same flaws the worm exploited. However, as time passes and many new installations continue to join the Internet, security analysts checking for site vulnerabilities find that many of the same security flaws still exist. A new attack on the Internet would not succeed on the same scale as the Internet worm, but it could still cause significant inconvenience to many.

The Internet worm was benign in that it only spread to other systems but did not destroy any part of them. It collected sensitive data, such as account passwords, but it did not retain them. While acting as a user, the worm could have deleted or overwritten files, distributed them elsewhere, or encrypted them and held them for ransom. The next worm may not be so benign.

The worm's effects stirred several people to action. One positive outcome from this experience was development in the United States of an infrastructure for reporting and correcting malicious and nonmalicious code flaws. The Internet worm occurred at about the same time that Cliff Stoll [STO89] reported his problems in tracking an electronic intruder (and his subsequent difficulty in finding anyone to deal with the case). The computer community realized it needed to organize. The resulting Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) at Carnegie Mellon University was formed; it and similar response centers around the world have done an excellent job of collecting and disseminating information on malicious code attacks and their countermeasures. System administrators now exchange information on problems and solutions. Security comes from informed protection and action, not from ignorance and inaction.

More Malicious Code: Code Red

Code Red appeared in the middle of 2001, to devastating effect. On July 29, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation proclaimed in a news release that "on July 19, the Code Red worm infected more than 250,000 systems in just nine hours ... This spread has the potential to disrupt business and personal use of the Internet for applications such as e-commerce, e-mail and entertainment." [BER01] Indeed, "the Code Red worm struck faster than any other worm in Internet history," according to a research director for a security software and services vendor. The first attack occurred on July 12; overall, 750,000 servers were affected, including 400,000 just in the period from August 1 to 10. [HUL01] Thus, of the 6 million web servers running code subject to infection by Code Red, about one in eight were infected. Michael Erbschloe, vice president of Computer Economics, Inc., estimates that Code Red's damage will exceed $2 billion. [ERB01] Code Red was more than a worm; it included several kinds of malicious code, and it mutated from one version to another. Let us take a closer look at how Code Red worked.

What It Did

There are several versions of Code Red, malicious software that propagates itself on web servers running Microsoft's Internet Information Server (IIS) software. Code Red takes two steps: infection and propagation. To infect a server, the worm takes advantage of a vulnerability in Microsoft's IIS. It overflows the buffer in the dynamic link library idq.dll to reside in the server's memory. Then, to propagate, Code Red checks IP addresses on port 80 of the PC to see if that web server is vulnerable.

What Effect It Had

The first version of Code Red was easy to spot, because it defaced web sites with the following text:

HELLO! Welcome to http://www.worm.com ! Hacked by Chinese! 

The rest of the original Code Red's activities were determined by the date. From day 1 to 19 of the month, the worm spawned 99 threads that scanned for other vulnerable computers, starting at the same IP address. Then, on days 20 to 27, the worm launched a distributed denial-of-service attack at the U.S. web site, www. whitehouse.gov. A denial-of-service attack floods the site with large numbers of messages in an attempt to slow down or stop the site because the site is overwhelmed and cannot handle the messages. Finally, from day 28 to the end of the month, the worm did nothing.

However, there were several variants. The second variant was discovered near the end of July 2001. It did not deface the web site, but its propagation was randomized and optimized to infect servers more quickly. A third variant, discovered in early August, seemed to be a substantial rewrite of the second. This version injected a Trojan horse in the target and modified software to ensure that a remote attacker could execute any command on the server. The worm also checked the year and month, so that it would automatically stop propagating in October 2002. Finally, the worm rebooted the server after 24 or 48 hours, wiping itself from memory but leaving the Trojan horse in place.

How It Worked

The Code Red worm looked for vulnerable personal computers running Microsoft IIS software. Exploiting the unchecked buffer overflow, the worm crashed Windows NT-based servers but executed code on Windows 2000 systems. The later versions of the worm created a trapdoor on an infected server; then, the system was open to attack by other programs or malicious users. To create the trapdoor, Code Red copied %windir%\cmd.exe to four locations:

c:\inetpub\scripts\root.ext c:\progra~1\common~1\system\MSADC\root.exe 
d:\inetpub\scripts\root.ext d:\progra~1\common~1\system\MSADC\root.exe 

Code Red also included its own copy of the file explorer.exe, placing it on the c: and d: drives so that Windows would run the malicious copy, not the original copy. This Trojan horse first ran the original, untainted version of explorer.exe, but it modified the system registry to disable certain kinds of file protection and to ensure that some directories have read, write, and execute permission. As a result, the Trojan horse had a virtual path that could be followed even when explorer.exe was not running. The Trojan horse continues to run in background, resetting the registry every 10 minutes; thus, even if a system administrator notices the changes and undoes them, the changes are applied again by the malicious code.

To propagate, the worm created 300 or 600 threads (depending on the variant) and tried for 24 or 48 hours to spread to other machines. After that, the system was forcibly rebooted, flushing the worm in memory but leaving the backdoor and Trojan horse in place.

To find a target to infect, the worm's threads worked in parallel. Although the early version of Code Red targeted www.whitehouse.gov, later versions chose a random IP address close to the host computer's own address. To speed its performance, the worm used a nonblocking socket so that a slow connection would not slow down the rest of the threads as they scanned for a connection.

What Was Learned

As of this writing, more than 6 million servers use Microsoft's IIS software. The Code Red variant that allowed unlimited root access made Code Red a virulent and dangerous piece of malicious code. Microsoft offered a patch to fix the overflow problem and prevent infection by Code Red, but many administrators neglected to apply the patch. (See Sidebar 3-5.) Some security analysts suggested that Code Red might be "a beta test for information warfare," meaning that its powerful combination of attacks could be a prelude to a large-scale, intentional effort targeted at particular countries or groups. [HUL01a] For this reason, users and developers should pay more and careful attention to the security of their systems. Forno [FOR01] warns that such security threats as Code Red stem from our general willingness to buy and install code that does not meet minimal quality standards and from our reluctance to devote resources to the large and continuing stream of patches and corrections that flows from the vendors. As we will see in Chapter 9, this problem is coupled with a lack of legal standing for users who experience seriously faulty code.

Malicious Code on the Web: Web Bugs

With the web pervading the lives of average citizens everywhere, malicious code in web pages has become a very serious problem. But sometimes the malice is not always clear; code can be used to good or bad ends, depending on your perspective. In this section, we look at a generic type of code called a web bug, to see how it can affect the code in which it is embedded.

What They Do

A web bug, sometimes called a pixel tag, clear gif, one-by-one gif, invisible gif, or beacon gif, is a hidden image on any document that can display HTML tags, such as a

Sidebar 3-5 Is the Cure Worse Than the Disease?

These days, a typical application program such as a word processor or spreadsheet package is sold to its user with no guarantee of quality. As problems are discovered by users or developers, patches are made available to be downloaded from the web and applied to the faulty system. This style of "quality control" relies on the users and system administrators to keep up with the history of releases and patches and to apply the patches in a timely manner. Moreover, each patch usually assumes that earlier patches can be applied; ignore a patch at your peril.

For example, Forno [FOR01] points out that an organization hoping to secure a web server running Windows NT 4.0's IIS had to apply over 47 patches as part of a service pack or available as a download from Microsoft. Such stories suggest that it may cost more to maintain an application or system than it cost to buy the application or system in the first place! Many organizations, especially small businesses, lack the resources for such an effort. As a consequence, they neglect to fix known system problems, which can then be exploited by hackers writing malicious code.

Blair [BLA01] describes a situation shortly after the end of the Cold War when the United States discovered that Russia was tracking its nuclear weapons materials by using a paper-based system. That is, the materials tracking system consisted of boxes of paper filled with paper receipts. In a gesture of friendship, the Los Alamos National Lab donated to Russia the Microsoft software it uses to track its own nuclear weapons materials. However, experts at the renowned Kurchatov Institute soon discovered that over time some files become invisible and inaccessible! In early 2000, they warned the United States. To solve the problem, the United States told Russia to upgrade to the next version of the Microsoft software. But the upgrade had the same problem, plus a security flaw that would allow easy access to the database by hackers or unauthorized parties.

imes patches themselves create new problems as they are fixing old ones. It is well known in the software reliability community that testing and fixing sometimes reduce reliability, rather than improve it. And with the complex interactions between software packages, many computer system managers prefer to follow the adage "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," meaning that if there is no apparent failure, they would rather not risk causing one from what seems like an unnecessary patch. So there are several ways that the continual bug-patching approach to security may actually lead to a less secure product than you started with.

web page, an HTML e-mail message, or even a spreadsheet. Its creator intends the bug to be invisible, unseen by users but very useful nevertheless because it can track the activities of a web user.

For example, if you visit the Blue Nile home page, www.bluenile.com, the following web bug code is automatically downloaded as a one-by-one pixel image from Avenue A, a marketing agency:

<img height=1 width=1 src="http://switch.avenuea.com/action/
bluenile_homepage/v2/a/ AD7029944"> 

What Effect They Have

Suppose you are surfing the web and load the home page for Commercial.com, a commercial establishment selling all kinds of housewares on the web. If this site contains a web bug for Market.com, a marketing and advertising firm, then the bug places a file called a cookie on your system's hard drive. This cookie, usually containing a numeric identifier unique to you, can be used to track your surfing habits and build a demographic profile. In turn, that profile can be used to direct you to retailers in whom you may be interested. For example, Commercial.com may create a link to other sites, display a banner advertisement to attract you to its partner sites, or offer you content customized for your needs.

How They Work

On the surface, web bugs do not seem to be malicious. They plant numeric data but do not track personal information, such as your name and address. However, if you purchase an item at Commercial.com, you may be asked to supply such information. Thus, the web server can capture such things as

  • your computer's IP address

  • the kind of web browser you use

  • your monitor's resolution

  • other browser settings, such as whether you have enabled Java technology

  • connection time

  • previous cookie values

and more.

This information can be used to track where and when you read a document, what your buying habits are, or what your personal information may be. More maliciously, the web bug can be cleverly used to review the web server's log files and determine your IP address—opening your system to hacking via the target IP address.

What Was Learned

Web bugs raise questions about privacy, and some countries are considering legislation to protect specifically from probes by web bugs. In the meantime, the Privacy Foundation has made available a tool called Bugnosis to locate web bugs and bring them to a user's attention.

In addition, users can invoke commands from their web browsers to block cookies or at least make the users aware that a cookie is about to be placed on a system. Each option offers some inconvenience. Cookies can be useful in recording information that is used repeatedly, such as name and address. Requesting a warning message can mean almost continual interruption as web bugs attempt to place cookies on your system. Another alternative is to allow cookies but to clean them off your system periodically, either by hand or by using a commercial product.

  • + Share This
  • 🔖 Save To Your Account

Discussions

comments powered by Disqus