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Computer Virus - Vulnerabilities and Infection Vectors

A Computer Virus is a type of malware that, when executed, replicates by inserting copies of itself (possibly modified) into other computer programs, data files, or the boot sector of the hard drive; when this replication succeeds, the affected areas are then said to be "infected".

Computer Viruses often perform some type of harmful activity on infected hosts, such as stealing hard disk space or CPU time, accessing private information, corrupting data, displaying political or humorous messages on the user's screen, spamming their contacts, or logging their keystrokes. However, not all viruses carry a destructive payload or attempt to hide themselves—the defining characteristic of viruses is that they are self-replicating computer programs which install themselves without the user's consent.

Virus writers use social engineering and exploit detailed knowledge of security vulnerabilities to gain access to their hosts' computing resources. The vast majority of viruses (over 99%) target systems running Microsoft Windows, employing a variety of mechanisms to infect new hosts, and often using complex anti-detection/stealth strategies to evade antivirus software.

Vulnerabilities and Infection Vectors

Software Bugs

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

Social Engineering and Poor Security Practices

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 (see code injection). If a user attempts to launch an infected program, the virus' code may be executed simultaneously.

In operating systems that use file extensions to determine program associations (such as Microsoft Windows), the extensions may be hidden from the user by default. This makes it possible to create a file that is of a different type than it appears to the user. For example, an executable may be created named "picture.png.exe", in which the user sees only "picture.png" and therefore assumes that this file is an image and most likely is safe, yet when opened runs the executable on the client machine.

Vulnerability of different Operating Systems to Viruses

The vast majority of viruses target systems running Microsoft Windows. This is due both to Microsoft's large market share of desktop users (over 95%), and to design choices in Windows that make it much easier for viruses to infect hosts running Windows. Also, the diversity of software systems on a network limits the destructive potential of viruses and malware. Open-source operating systems such as Linux allow users to choose from a variety of desktop environments, packaging tools, etc. which means that malicious code targeting any one of these systems will only affect a subset of all users. However most Windows users are running the same set of applications, so viruses are able to rapidly spread amongst Windows systems by targeting the same exploits on large numbers of hosts.

Theoretically, other operating systems are also susceptible to viruses, but in practice these are extremely rare or non-existent, due to much more robust security architectures in Unix-like systems (including Linux and Mac OS X) and to the diversity of the applications running on them. There are no known viruses that have spread "in the wild" for Mac OS X. The difference in virus vulnerability between Macs and Windows is a chief selling point, one that Apple uses in their Get a Mac advertising.

Infection Targets and Replication Techniques

Computer Viruses infect a variety of different subsystems on their hosts. One manner of classifying viruses is to analyze whether they reside in binary executables (such as .EXE or .COM files), data files (such as Microsoft Word documents or PDF files), or in the boot sector of the host's hard drive (or some combination of all of these).

Resident vs. Non-Resident Viruses

A memory-resident virus (or simply "resident virus") installs itself as part of the operating system when executed, after which it remains in RAM from the time the computer is booted up to when it is shut down. Resident viruses overwrite interrupt handling code or other functions, and when the operating system attempts to access the target file or disk sector, the virus code intercepts the request and redirects the control flow to the replication module, infecting the target. In contrast, a non-memory-resident virus (or "non-resident virus"), when executed, scans the disk for targets, infects them, and then exits (i.e. it does not remain in memory after it is done executing).

Macro Viruses

Many common applications, such as Microsoft Outlook and Microsoft Word, allow macro programs to be embedded in documents or emails, so that the programs may be run automatically when the document is opened. A macro virus (or "document virus") is a virus that is written in a macro language, and embedded into these documents so that when users open the file, the virus code is executed, and can infect the user's computer. This is one of the reasons that it is dangerous to open unexpected attachments in e-mails. 

Boot Sector Viruses

Boot sector viruses specifically target the boot sector/Master Boot Record (MBR) of the host's hard drive or removable storage media (flash drives, floppy disks, etc.).

Stealth Strategies

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 antivirus software, however, especially those which maintain and date cyclic redundancy checks on file changes.

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 have 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. Defending a computer against viruses may demand that a file system migrate towards detailed and explicit permission for every kind of file access.

Read Request Intercepts

While some antivirus software employ various techniques to counter stealth mechanisms, once the infection occurs any recourse to clean the system is unreliable. In Microsoft Windows operating systems, the NTFS file system is proprietary. Direct access to files without using the Windows OS is undocumented. This leaves antivirus software little alternative but to send a read request to Windows OS files that handle such requests. Some viruses trick antivirus software by intercepting its requests to the OS.

A virus can hide itself by intercepting the request to read the infected file, handling the request itself, and return an uninfected version of the file to the antivirus software. The interception can occur by code injection of the actual operating system files that would handle the read request. Thus, an antivirus software attempting to detect the virus will either not be given permission to read the infected file, or, the read request will be served with the uninfected version of the same file.

The only reliable method to avoid stealth is to boot from a medium that is known to be clean. Security software can then be used to check the dormant operating system files. Most security software relies on virus signatures, or they employ heuristics.

Security software may also use a database of file hashes for Windows OS files, so the security software can identify altered files, and request Windows installation media to replace them with authentic versions. In older versions of Windows, file hashes of Windows OS files stored in Windows—to allow file integrity/authenticity to be checked, could be overwritten so that the System File Checker would report that altered system files are authentic, so using file hashes to scan for altered files would not always guarantee finding an infection.

Computer Virus Self-Modification

Most modern antivirus programs try to find virus-patterns inside ordinary programs by scanning them for so-called virus signatures. Unfortunately, the term is misleading, in that viruses do not possess unique signatures in the way that human beings do. Such a virus signature is merely a sequence of bytes that an antivirus program looks for because it is known to be part of the virus. A better term would be "search strings". Different antivirus programs will employ different search strings, and indeed different search methods, when identifying viruses. If a virus scanner finds such a pattern in a file, it will perform other checks to make sure that it has found the virus, and not merely a coincidental sequence in an innocent file, before 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 but probably not impossible. These viruses modify their code on each infection. That is, each infected file contains a different variant of the virus.

Encrypted Computer Viruses

One method of evading signature detection is to use simple encryption to encipher the body of the virus, leaving only the encryption module and a cryptographic key in cleartext. 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. Since these would be symmetric keys, stored on the infected host, it is in fact entirely possible to decrypt the final virus, but this is probably not required, since self-modifying code is such a rarity that it may be reason for virus scanners to at least flag the file as suspicious.

An old, but compact, encryption involves XORing each byte in a virus with a constant, so that the exclusive-or operation had only to be repeated for decryption. It is suspicious for a code to modify itself, so the code to do the encryption/decryption may be part of the signature in many virus definitions.

Some viruses will employ a means of encryption inside an executable in which the virus is encrypted under certain events, such as the virus scanner being disabled for updates or the computer being rebooted. This is called Cryptovirology. At said times, the executable will decrypt the virus and execute its hidden runtimes infecting the computer and sometimes disabling the antivirus software.

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 which remain identical between infections, making it very difficult to detect directly using signatures. Antivirus 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 antivirus 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 utilize 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 14,000 lines of assembly language code, 90% of which is part of the metamorphic engine. 

Motives for creating viruses can include seeking profit, desire to send a political message, personal amusement, to demonstrate that a vulnerability exists in software, for sabotage and denial of service, or simply because they wish to explore artificial life and evolutionary algorithms. 

Computer viruses currently cause billions of dollars worth of economic damage each year, due to causing systems failure, wasting computer resources, corrupting data, increasing maintenance costs, etc. In response, free, open-source anti-virus tools have been developed, and a multi-billion dollar industry of anti-virus software vendors has cropped up, selling virus protection to Windows users. Unfortunately, no currently existing anti-virus software is able to catch all computer viruses (especially new ones); computer security researchers are actively searching for new ways to enable antivirus solutions to more effectively detect emerging viruses, before they have already become widely distributed.

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