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.
In his recent video interview with The New Yorker, Edward Snowden advised viewers to get rid of Dropbox, Facebook and Google, saying such services are dangerous and should be avoided. But what do consumers think? Are you and I ready to follow his advice and switch to more secure services? To find out what people really think, we consulted our recent global consumer survey* where we had asked people just those types of questions. Here's what we found: 53% of survey respondents said they’d be willing to switch from services like Google to other more private services to avoid search-based profiling. 56% of people said they have become more wary of US-based Internet services in the past year. 46% of people said they would be willing to pay to be sure that none of their personal data transits via the US. 70% said they are concerned about the potential of mass surveillance by intelligence agencies in countries through which their data may be passing. 68% of respondents said they try to protect their privacy at least some of the time through the use of private browsing or incognito mode or by encrypting their communications. 57% of people said they are not okay with companies using their profile data in exchange for getting a free service. Germany, Brazil and the Philippines showed some of the highest levels of concern about data privacy. For example, when asked whether they’ve changed some of their Internet habits in recent months due to increased concerns about data privacy, an average of 56% of people said they had: 45% in the UK, 47% in the US, and 49% in France, and going even higher to 60% in Germany and 67% in both Brazil and the Philippines. Are you ready to start using more private, secure services too? If so, F-Secure has some great options. Our online storage and sync service, younited, is fully encrypted for security and privacy from the ground up. F-Secure Freedome encrypts your connection wherever you are, even on public WiFi, and protects you from hackers and Internet trackers. And free F-Secure App Permissions lets you know which mobile apps you've installed are a threat to your privacy. *The F-Secure Consumer Values Study 2014 consisted of online interviews of 4,800 age, gender and income-representative respondents from six countries, 800 respondents per country: US, UK, France, Germany, Brazil and the Philippines. The study was designed together with Informed Intuitions. Data was collected by Toluna Analytics in July 2014. Image courtesy of greensefa, flickr.com
Whistleblowers have changed the world and there’s still a lot of hidden secrets that the public really should know about. High-profile leakers like Snowden, Manning and Assange are known globally, and are paying a high price for their courage. But only a few are dedicated enough to blow the whistle in public - most leakers want to carry on with their normal lives and remain anonymous. Snowden did no doubt show the way for others, and there are already several who have tried to leak and remain anonymous. That’s not easy and the stakes are high! Which is underlined by the recent news about the feds discovering one leaker. But is it even possible to leak anonymously in this word that in many ways is worse than Orwell’s fictive surveillance nightmare? Let’s list some advice for the case you would like to leak by phone to a journalist. I guess not many of you readers will ever be in a situation where you need this. But read on, this is highly interesting anyway and tells a lot about how our digital word works. Ok, let’s assume the worst case. The secrets you want to leak affects US national security, which means that your enemy is powerful and can use top surveillance against you. Let’s also assume it’s info you have authorized access to. And that you want to talk on the phone to a journalist. Here’s some basic rules and hints that may prevent you from ending up behind bars. First you need to assess how many persons have access to the data. They will all be on a list of suspects, together with you. The shorter the list, the bigger the risk for you. Your mobile phone is a tracking device. The cell phone network knows what base station you are connected to at any time. Other services can record and store even GPS-accurate position data. All this is accessible to the agents and you must make sure it doesn’t reveal you. Needless to say, your own phone does not participate in this project. You need to find out who you should leak to. Never do this research from your own computer because your search history can reveal you. It leaves traces both in your computer and in your user profile at Google (unless you know what you are doing and use privacy tools properly). Do this research from a public computer. Make sure you have never logged in to any personal account from this computer. You need a “burner phone” to do the leaking. This is a phone that can’t be connected to your identity in any way. Here’s some rules for how to use it: It is always switched off with the battery removed when not in use. Just using the power button does not cut power from all parts of the device. It is never switched on in or close to your home. The agents can easily find out what base station it was connected to and turning it on near home can make you more suspected than others. It is never switched on in or close to your vehicle. Base station records for the phone may correlate with traffic cameras storing your registration plate. This is especially important if you have a modern car with a built-in data connection for service monitoring etc. Never user the burner for any other contacts. Even a single call to your spouse creates a record that ties you to the phone. Needless to say, never store any other info in the phone than what you need for this project. You always leave your own phone at home when going out to use the burner phone. Otherwise the agents can see that your own phone “happen” to be in the same base station when the burner is used. Leave your own phone turned ON at home when you go out with the burner. Otherwise you create a recognizable pattern where your own phone turns off and the burner turns on, and vice versa, in a synchronized manner. Leave any other wireless devices at home. Tablets, wireless mobile payment devices, anything else with a radio transmitter. Using a voice changer is necessary especially if the list of suspects is short. Assume that your calls can be recorded and your own voice checked against the recording. Get the burner phone. Scout for a dealer with old-looking or insufficient security cameras located not too close to your home. Remember that the agents may locate the shop where the burner phone was sold, get the security camera recording and compare against the list of suspects. Even better, ask someone else to buy the phone for you. Choose a cheap non-smart prepaid phone with removable battery. Pay cash and make sure you don’t reveal your identity to the seller in any way. Safely destroy any receipts and other paperwork related to the purchase. Think about where to store physical items that can tie you to the leak. Such items are the burner phone and related documents or data media. This is especially important if the list of suspects is short. Storing such items at home, at your workplace or in your vehicle will reveal you if the agents perform a search. Try to find some other place that is safe and can’t be tied to you. Now you are ready to contact the journalist. Be very rigid with the rules for how to use the burner phone. There are also some additional rules for this situation: Dress discreetly to avoid sticking out in surveillance camera footage. Be far enough from home when making the call. Turn the burner on, make the call and turn it off again right away. Avoid public places with surveillance cameras when the burner is on. Do not use your credit card during this trip. Pay cash for everything. Any other personal payment instruments, like public transportation payment cards, is a big no-no as well. You have to assume that journalists dealing with leaks are being watched constantly. Assume that the hunt is on as soon as you have made the first contact. Try to wrap up the project as quickly as possible and minimize the number of times you turn on the burner phone. When you are done, dispose all items related to the leak in a secure way. The trash can of your own house is NOT secure. Dump the phone in the river or put it in a public trash sack far enough from home. The truly paranoid leaker will break the phone with gloves on. The outer shell can contain fingerprints or traces of your DNA and the electronics the traceable phone ID. It’s good to make sure they end up in different places. Huh! That’s a lot to remember. Imagine, all this just for maintaining privacy when making a phone call! But you really need to do it like this if the big boys are after you and you still want to continue as a free citizen. I hope you never need to go through all this, and also that you do it right if you have to. Disclaimer. This text is mainly intended as a demonstration of how intrusive the surveillance society is today. We provide no guarantee that this will be enough to keep you out of jail. If you really plan to become a whistle blower, research the topic thoroughly and get familiar with other sources as well (but remember what I wrote about researching from your own computer). Safe whistle blowing, Micke
Welcome back to this tree post series about F-Secure’s privacy principles. The first post is here. We have already covered the fundaments, the importance of privacy. In short, that is how we avoid collecting unnecessary data, and never misuse what we collect for purposes not endorsed by you. But that’s not enough. We take on a great responsibility as soon as your data is stored on our systems. It’s not enough that we have good intents, we must also ensure that others with malicious intents can’t misuse your data. That’s what we talk about today. NO BACKDOORS Many government agencies show an increasing interest in data ordinary people store in cloud services. There are several known cases where vendors have been forced to implement backdoors allowing agencies to examine and fetch users’ data. F-Secure operates in countries where we can’t be forced to do this, so you are secured against bulk data collection. But we are not trying to build a safe haven for criminals. We support law enforcement when a warrant is issued against a defined suspect based on reasonable suspicions. We do cooperate with officials in these cases, but validate each warrant separately. THERE IS NO PRIVACY WITHOUT SECURITY It’s not enough to promise we don’t misuse your data ourselves. We must make sure that no one else can either. This is done by applying high security standards to all planning and implementation work we do. Another security aspect is our own personnel. We have technical systems and processes that prevent employees from misusing your data. WE CHOOSE SERVICE PROVIDERS WE CAN TRUST Today’s complex systems are rarely built from ground up by one company. That’s the case for our systems as well. The level of security and privacy is defined by the chain’s weakest link, and this means that we must apply the same strict principles to technology partners and subcontractors as well. Customers should never have to think what licensed services a product contains. We naturally carry full responsibility for what we deliver to you, and our privacy principles cover it all even if we rely on services and code made by someone else. The last three principles will be covered in the next and final post. Stay tuned. Safe surfing, Micke