One of the stranger perils of being a technical writer involves being ambushed at odd moments by people demanding on-the-spot explanations of complex technical concepts. I was out on the town one night and somehow found myself having to explain to a not-too-tech-savvy friend how to differentiate between a virus, a trojan and a worm.
After patiently listening to a lengthy, rambling answer, my friend thought it over for a minute and then asked, “So, why should I care? Why is this important to me? Do I really need to know the difference between different types of malwares?”
My automatic reaction was to say, “Of course you need to!” – but to my surprise, I couldn’t coherently express why I felt that way (though to be fair, I was having trouble thinking clearly about anything that night).
Thinking it over in the sober light of day, I realized that he’d actually asked a pretty good question. For most computer users, the difference between malware types is academic and irrelevant – at least, right up until their computer gets infected. If everything’s working just fine, why in the world should they be able to distinguish between an exploit and a backdoor?
To get a expert’s opinion on this, I relayed my friend’s question to an Analyst in our Response Lab. His reply was (and I’m paraphrasing here):
“Yes, so that if anything happens, you’d know how the computer got infected, how to deal with the infection, and how to prevent it from spreading.”
Now, that’s the condensed version of a technical person’s answer. The real answer was actually a long, in-depth and detailed explanation covering how certain malware types had specific behaviors and particular vectors for distribution, as well as recommendations for dealing with particular types of infection.
And that there was the problem in a nutshell – it’s a lot of information to absorb. It was a thorough answer, but not an easy one to communicate to people with little interest in technicalities. Some parts of the explanation also assumed more computer knowledge than most users would probably have or want.
Having said that, I thought the condensed version of our Analyst’s answer seemed like a helpful, ‘user-friendly’ answer. It summarizes all the main points effectively, puts it in a context most users would understand and – this is important – it isn’t long-winded. I’ll come back to this again a little later.
Trying to find a simple, all-encompassing answer to my friend’s question made me wonder if he really had a point and that users didn’t really need to know something as technical as malware types. So I decided to turn the question around and ask:
“Are there any cases in which ‘the average user’ doesn’t need to know the difference between malware types?”
The following four scenarios were the only ones I could think of where knowing malware types wouldn’t be helpful (if you can think of others, feel free to leave a comment). Of course, I included some reasons why I think knowing malware types would be helpful even in these situations.
If you can honestly claim this, you’re probably what I’d call an Exemplary User: someone who diligently updates the operating system and programs, never installs programs or uses removable media without thoroughly vetting it first, doesn’t download from untrusted sources and basically, just does computer security right.
An Exemplary User can laugh with scorn at looming malware outbreaks. If this describes you, great! You can stop reading now. (Heck, you probably know the malware types already, anyway).
Since the vast majority of users will never qualify for Exemplary Userhood however (myself included), the second best scenario is:
No, I’m not starting a PC versus Mac debate. What I mean is that even if malware does get onto your computer, it needs to find a suitable environment before it can have an effect. A Linux virus that somehow manages to get onto a Windows machine usually can’t do anything except blush sheepishly. Ditto for a backdoor that uses HTTP to connect to a remote site but ends up on a standalone computer without Internet acess.
If your computer happens to be set up so that the majority of malware doesn’t target it or affect it (now you can start the PC/Mac debate), then our query becomes moot. Again, congratulations!
Of course, most people have very little choice in the kind of operating system or programs they have on their computer, particularly business users. Even home users usually have to consider familiarity and affordability over specifically tailoring their computer to be malware resistant. To fix that, most users use antivirus protection. Which leads to reason 3:
Actually, since I work for a computer security company, I’d reeeaaally like it if more people could claim this. And hey – shameless plug – our Internet Security is doing pretty well in independent tests!
Unfortunately, this solution isn’t 100% bulletproof, especially if you’re not an Exemplary User or are just plain unlucky. Sometimes, the antivirus doesn’t catch the malware. Or it makes an error and the wrong file get fingered, causing all sorts of mayhem. Worse still, the antivirus turns out to be rogueware.
In other words, the program you’re depending on to sort out all the problems….doesn’t. What then? Ah, then we move on to reason 4:
OK, so the person fixing an infected computer should be the one with the technical knowledge, true. That person may not be the user, true. If you have someone dependable, willing and trustworthy, who can fix anything that goes wrong…can I have their number? Such a person is a godsend. Treasure him/her.
Still, even if you’re that lucky, it’s often a great help to the actual technician if the user can pinpoint the probable cause. Knowing what type of dastardly program is screwing around with the computer gives the technician a good place to start investigating, and maybe also some idea of how to fix it.
Or, to use an analogy, it’s the difference between driving to a workshop and telling the mechanic, “My car’s making a funny sound”, and saying, “The fan belt’s busted.”‘
If you’re not in one of the 4 ‘Ideal Situations’ listed above, then it would probably be helpful for you to know the different kinds of malicious programs that can damage your computer, because…well, refer to condensed Analyst’s answer above.
Realistically though, learning about malware types, even superficially, requires investing time and energy that not every user can spare – which is why technical writers (ahem) have to find ways of communicating these concepts in ways that are interesting and easily accessible for everyone. Which brings us back to the condensed Analyst’s answer. It’s short, to the point and gives just enough information without being overwhelming. And if more information is asked for, well that’s the time to start going in-depth.
Personally, I like it – but since my part of my work deals with malware types anyway, I freely admit to being biased about this. So really, the best people to evaluate how useful that answer is – You, dear reader. So how about it? Do you think the condensed Analyst’s answer is a helpful, informative reply?
Oh and since we’re on the topic, here are the Types F-Secure uses to classify the samples – the good, the bad and the merely suspicious. You can also find plenty of other sites with excellent information on this topic – for example, HowStuffWorks.com has great articles explaining how trojans, viruses and worms work.
If you read our post about why you should travel with glitter nail polish, you know we love unconventional OPSEC advice that keep strangers out of your business. That's why this quote in a recent GQ profile of Kim Kardashian, which was first pointed out by LA Times editor Amy Fiscus, stood out: "She's frighteningly organized: She tells me that before bed she deletes every single text message and e-mail from her phone, unless it's something she still needs to respond to." Is this good OPSEC? We asked one of our resident experts Camillo Särs and he was intrigued. "Yes – the practice of deleting any unnecessary copies as soon as possible is definitely good OPSEC," he explained. "Clearly that is not the actual intent here, but effective, nevertheless!" So be like the woman who broke the internet, and consider getting rid of anything you don't need to keep as soon as possible. And if you're about to go on vacation, here's a quick OPSEC tip for your email out-of-office message, which could be helping criminals trying to phish you. Is there an OPSEC tip you picked up that you've picked up and feel like sharing? Let us know in the comments.
In Finland, there is this thing called juhannus. A few years ago, our former colleague Hetta described it like this: Well, Midsummer – or juhannus – as it is called in Finnish, is one of the most important public holidays in our calendar. It is celebrated, as you probably guessed, close to the dates of the Summer Solstice, when day is at its longest in the northern hemisphere. Finland being so far up north, the sun doesn’t set on juhannus at all. Considering that in the winter we get the never ending night, it’s no surprise we celebrate the sun not setting. So what do Finns do to celebrate juhannus? I already told you we flock to our summer cottages, but what then? We decorate the cottage with birch branches to celebrate the summer, we stock up on new potatoes which are just now in season and strawberries as well. We fire up the barbecue and eat grilled sausages to our hearts content. We burn bonfires that rival with the unsetting sun. And we get drunk. If that isn't vivid enough, this video may help: [protected-iframe id="f18649f0b62adf8eb1ec638fa5066050-10874323-9129869" info="https://www.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Fsuomifinland100%2Fvideos%2F1278272918868972%2F&show_text=0&width=560" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0" style="border: none; overflow: hidden;" scrolling="no"] And because the celebration is just so... celebratory, it's easy to lose your phone. So here are a few ways to prepare yourself for a party that lasts all night. 1. Don't use 5683 as your passcode. That spells love and it's also one of the first passcodes anyone trying to crack into your phone will try. So use something much more creative -- and use a 6-digit code if you can on your iPhone. You can also encrypt your Android. 2. Write down your IMEI number. If you lose your phone, you're going to need this so make sure you have it written down somewhere safe. 3. Back your content up. This makes your life a lot easier if your party goes too well and it's pretty simple on any iOS device. Just make sure you're using a strong, unique password for your iCloud account. Unfortunately on an Android phone, you'll have to use a third-party app. 4. Maybe just leave it home. Enjoy being with your friends and assume that they'll get the pictures you need to refresh your memory. And while you're out you can give your phone a quick internal "clean" with our free Boost app. [Image by Janne Hellsten | Flickr]
Mikko Hyppönen -- our Chief Research Officer and probably the most famous code warrior ever to come out of Finland -- likes to point out that he was born the same year as the internet. Jani -- the ten-year-old from Helsinki who made international news by earning Instagram's top bug bounty prize for uncovering a security flaw in the photo-sharing site -- was born a couple a years after Facebook was invented in 2004 and just four years before Instagram went online in 2010. And he's already made some history. Jani discovered a flaw in the site that would have allowed him -- or anyone -- to delete content from any user from the site, even stars with tens of millions of followers including Taylor Swift, Selena Gomez and Beyonce. Like any good white-hat hacker he didn't take advantage of the vulnerability. Instead, he reported the bug to Facebook, which now owns the app, directly. His maturity paid off. Even though he is not technically old enough to use the site according Instagram's terms and conditions, he's become the youngest person ever to win a $10,000 bug bounty, which he's used to purchase a soccer ball, a bike and other essential gear for being ten. To celebrate his feat, F-Secure Labs invited Jani to visit our headquarters for a hamburger and a tour. The visit gave our experts a chance to share their stories about how they were drawn to cybersecurity. Mikko learned to love computers from his mother who was in the industry. Päivi was guided into the field by her father and discovered that she has a passion for rooting out spam. When Tomi was a kid striving to learn the rules of the coin games his friends played so he could hack them and win, he recognized that he didn't see the world like everyone else. Jani has already discovered the same thing. Though he finds plenty of time for school and playing with his friends, he spends 2-3 hours during his off days hunting for vulnerabilities and looking out for new bug bounty programs -- like our own -- that allow him to test his skills. How did he find the vulnerability in Instagram? First he created two accounts. He posted a comment using one account and then just using the publicly available content id number he was able to delete the comment using the other. Immediately he recognized the potential for such a flaw to be exploited. Mikko and Tomi were impressed by how Jani used Linux and Burp Suite -- a tool that pros like the analysts in our Labs use to analyze network traffic -- to help identify the bug. While he used to be interested in a career in video games, Jani says he's now thinking about becoming a cybersecurity specialist. Mikko and Tomi advised him to finish school and stay on the right side of the law. They also invited him to spend a week or two working at the Labs to see how he likes the job, when he's old enough. He's planning on taking them up on the offer, saying that F-Secure looks like a "fun and cool" place to work. Nice. We're always looking for new talent and even Mikko may retire one day.