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.
Kaisu who is working for us is also studying tourism. Her paper on knowledge of and behavior related to information security amongst young travelers was released in May, and is very interesting reading. The world is getting smaller. We travel more and more, and now we can stay online even when travelling. Using IT-services in unknown environments does however introduce new security risks. Kaisu wanted to find out how aware young travelers are of those risks, and what they do to mitigate them. The study contains many interesting facts. Practically all, 95,7%, are carrying a smartphone when travelling. One third is carrying a laptop and one in four a tablet. The most commonly used apps and services are taking pictures, using social networks, communication apps and e-mail, which all are used by about 90% of the travelers. Surfing the web follows close behind at 72%. But I’m not going to repeat it all here. The full story is in the paper. What I find most interesting is however what the report doesn’t state. Everybody is carrying a smartphone and snapping pictures, using social media, surfing the web and communicating. Doesn’t sound too exotic, right? That’s what we do in our everyday life too, not just when travelling. The study does unfortunately not examine the participants’ behavior at home. But I dare to assume that it is quite similar. And I find that to be one of the most valuable findings. Traveling is no longer preventing us from using IT pretty much as we do in our everyday life. I remember when I was a kid long, long ago. This was even before invention of the cellphone. There used to be announcements on the radio in the summer: “Mr. and Mrs. Müller from Germany traveling by car in Lapland. Please contact your son Hans urgently.” Sounds really weird for us who have Messenger, WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Skype installed on our smartphones. There was a time when travelling meant taking a break in your social life. Not anymore. Our social life is today to an increasing extent handled through electronic services. And those services goes with us when travelling, as Kaisu’s study shows. So you have access to the same messaging channels no matter where you are on this small planet. But they all require a data connection, and this is often the main challenge. There are basically two ways to get the data flowing when abroad. You can use data roaming through the cellphone’s ordinary data connection. But that is often too expensive to be feasible, so WiFi offers a good and cheap alternative. Hunting for free WiFi has probably taken the top place on the list of travelers’ concerns, leaving pickpockets and getting burnt in the sun behind. Another conclusion from Kaisu’s study is that travelers have overcome this obstacle, either with data roaming or WiFi. The high usage rates for common services is a clear indication of that. But how do they protect themselves when connecting to exotic networks? About 10% are using a VPN and about 20% say they avoid public WiFi. That leaves us with over 70% who are doing something else, or doing nothing. Some of them are using data roaming, but I’m afraid most of them just use whatever WiFi is available, either ignoring the risks or being totally unaware. That’s not too smart. Connecting to a malicious WiFi network can expose you to eavesdropping, malware attacks, phishing and a handful other nasty tricks. It’s amazing that only 10% of the respondents have found the simple and obvious solution, a VPN. It stands for Virtual Private Network and creates a protected “tunnel” for your data through the potentially harmful free networks. Sounds too nerdy? No, it’s really easy. Just check out Freedome. It’s the super-simple way to be among the smart 10%. Safe surfing, Micke PS. I recently let go of my old beloved Nokia Lumia. Why? Mainly because I couldn’t use Freedome on it, and I really want the freedom it gives me while abroad. Image by Moyan Brenn
Passwords are the keys to online accounts. A good password known only to account owners can ensure email, social media accounts, bank accounts, etc. stay accessible only to the person (or people) that need them. But a bad password will do little to prevent people from getting access to those accounts, and can expose you to serious security risks (such as identity theft). And sadly, many people continue to recycle easy to guess/crack passwords. A recent study conducted by researchers from Google attempted to nail down the most common pieces of advice and practices recommended by security researchers, and unsurprisingly, several of them had to do with passwords. And there were several gaps between what security experts recommend people do when creating passwords, and what actually happens. Here’s 3 expert tips to help you use passwords to keep your accounts safe and secure. Unique Passwords are Better than Strong Passwords One thing experts recommend doing is to choose a strong and unique password – advice many people hear but few actually follow. Chances are, if your password is on this computer science professor’s dress, it’s not keeping your accounts particularly secure. Many major online service providers automatically force you to choose a password that follows certain guidelines (such as length and character combinations), and even provide you feedback on the password’s strength. But security researchers such as F-Secure Security Advisor Sean Sullivan say that, while strong passwords are important, the value of choosing unique passwords is an equally important part of securing your account. Basically, using unique passwords means you shouldn’t recycle the same password for use with several different accounts, or even slight variations of the same word or phrase. Google likens that to having one key for all the doors in your house, as well as your car and office. Each service should get its own password. That way, one compromised account won’t give someone else the keys to everything you do online. A strong password will be long, use combinations of upper-case and lower-case letters, numbers, and symbols. The password should also be a term or phrase that is personal to you – and not a phrase or slogan familiar to the general public, or something people that know you could easily guess. But there are still many ways to compromise these passwords, as proven by The Great Politician Hack. So using unique passwords prevents criminals, spies, etc. from using one compromised password to access several different services. Sullivan says choosing strong and unique passwords for critical accounts – such as online banking, work related email or social media accounts, or cloud storage services containing personal documents – is a vital part of having good account security. Experts Use Password Managers for a Reason One study showed that the average Internet user has 26 different online accounts. Assuming you’re choosing unique passwords, and you fit the bill of an “average Internet user”, you’ll find yourself with a large number of passwords. You’ve now made your account so safe and secure that you can’t even use it! That’s why experts recommend using a password manager. Password managers can help people maintain strong account security by letting them choose strong and unique passwords for each account, and store them securely so that they’re centralized and accessible. Keeping 26 or more online accounts secure with strong and unique passwords known only to you is what password managers do to keep your data safe, which is why 73% of experts that took part in Google’s study use them, compared to just 24% of non-experts. Take Advantage of Additional Security Features Another great way to secure accounts is to activate two-factor authentication whenever it’s made available. Two-factor (or multi-factor) authentication essentially uses two different methods to verify the identity of a particular account holder. An example of this would be protecting your account with a password, but also having your phone number registered as a back-up, so any kind of password reset done on the account makes use of your phone to verify you are who you say you are. While the availability of this option may be limited, security experts recommend taking advantage of it whenever you can. You can find a list of some popular services that use two-factor authentication here, as well as some other great tips for using passwords to keep your online accounts secure. [Photo by geralt | Pixabay]
The Android vulnerability known as StageFright has revealed the Android operating system's "heart of darkness." In theory, a simple MMS could take over your phone. The F-Secure Labs is actively monitoring for threats that target the exploit. The good news is that while the theoretical risk of attack is high and Android is consistently the target of nearly all mobile malware, we have not seen any active attacks that target it yet. But this is still a huge event that should trigger a major reconsideration of Android security in general. Our Micke explained: Android is the most widespread operating system on this planet. 48 % of the devices shipped in 2014 were Androids (Gartner). And that includes both phones, tablets, laptops and desktop computers. There’s over 1 billion active Android devices (Google’s device activation data). Most of them are vulnerable to Stagefright and many of them will never receive a patch. This is big! The ability to keep software updated is the essential task that makes security possible. Android's adaptability has helped lead to its remarkable growth. But it's also led to remarkable fragmentation in the ecosystem. "Recent data from Google suggests there are 6 different versions of Android that are widely used, with KitKat (Android 4.4) being the most popular. But it’s used by less than 40% of devices," Adam wrote on the F-Secure Business Insider blog. "The remaining 60% or so are spread out among the other five versions of the OS, and each is customized differently and receives varying levels of support from operators and OEMs." Many users cannot update at all. "Apparently the best supported method of updating your Android phone is to buy a new Android phone," F-Secure Chief Research Officer Mikko Hypponen tweeted. Obviously that option isn't available to millions of Android users. "Fragmentation also has socioeconomic implications," the EFF's Cooper Quintin wrote. "Older and cheaper phones tend to run older versions of the Android operating system, and vendors often give up supporting them or updating the software running on them. On the other hand newer and more expensive phones tend to receive updates faster and more reliably (especially Google Nexus devices)." So what should you do until then -- besides update your OS if possible and run mobile security that targets threats that take advantage of exploits like StageFright? 1. Examine the app that handles your MMS messages. Check out your Android device's default messaging app or Google Hangouts. Make sure to disable their automatic retrieve/fetching options. This will prevent automatic execution of potential exploits on any received messages. 2. Avoid viewing or opening any pictures or videos from untrusted sources. We'll keep you updated about this situation as it develops. Cheers, Sandra [Photo by Photo Cindy | Flickr]