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.
The recent statements from FBI director James Comey is yet another example of the authorities’ opportunistic approach to surveillance. He dislikes the fact that mobile operating systems from Google and Apple now come with strong encryption for data stored on the device. This security feature is naturally essential when you lose your device or if you are a potential espionage target. But the authorities do not like it as it makes investigations harder. What he said was basically that there should be a method for authorities to access data in mobile devices with a proper warrant. This would be needed to effectively fight crime. Going on to list some hated crime types, murder, child abuse, terrorism and so on. And yes, this might at first sound OK. Until you start thinking about it. Let’s translate Comey’s statement into ordinary non-obfuscated English. This is what he really said: “I, James Comey, director of FBI, want every person world-wide to carry a tracking device at all times. This device shall collect the owner’s electronic communications and be able to open cloud services where data is stored. The content of these tracking devices shall on request be made available to the US authorities. We don’t care if this weakens your security, and you shouldn’t care because our goals are more important than your privacy.” Yes, that’s what we are talking about here. The “tracking devices” are of course our mobile phones and other digital gadgets. Our digital lives are already accurate mirrors of our actual lives. Our gadgets do not only contain actual data, they are also a gate to the cloud services because they store passwords. Granting FBI access to mobile devices does not only reveal data on the device. It also opens up all the user’s cloud services, regardless of if they are within US jurisdiction or not. In short. Comey want to put a black box in the pocket of every citizen world-wide. Black boxes that record flight data and communications are justified in cockpits, not in ordinary peoples’ private lives. But wait. What if they really could solve crimes this way? Yes, there would probably be a handful of cases where data gathered this way is crucial. At least enough to make fancy PR and publically show how important it is for the authorities to have access to private data. But even proposing weakening the security of commonly and globally used operating systems is a sign of gross negligence against peoples’ right to security and privacy. The risk is magnitudes bigger than the upside. Comey was diffuse when talking about examples of cases solved using device data. But the history is full of cases solved *without* data from smart devices. Well, just a decade ago we didn’t even have this kind of tracking devices. And the police did succeed in catching murderers and other criminals despite that. You can also today select to not use a smartphone, and thus drop the FBI-tracker. That is your right and you do not break any laws by doing so. Many security-aware criminals are probably operating this way, and many more would if Comey gets what he wants. So it’s very obvious that the FBI must have capability to investigate crime even without turning every phone into a black box. Comey’s proposal is just purely opportunistic, he wants this data because it exists. Not because he really needs it. Safe surfing, Micke
Is this China's digital riot police? A "particularly remarkable advanced persistent threat" has been compromising websites in Hong Kong and Japan for months, according to Volexity. The pro-democratic sites that have been infected include "Alliance for True Democracy – Hong Kong" and "People Power – Hong Kong" along with several others identified with the Occupy Central and Umbrella Revolution student movements behind the massive protests against the Chinese government. Visitors to the sites are being targeted by malware designed for "exploitation, compromise, and digital surveillance". In an analysis on our Labs Blog, Micke notes that it's possible that cybercriminals could be simply piggybacking on the news without any political motivation. However, the Remote Access Trojans (RATs) being used could provide serious advantages to political opponents of the movement. "A lot of the visitors on these sites are involved in the movement somehow, either as leaders or at grassroot level," he writes. "Their enemy could gain a lot of valuable information by planting RATs even in a small fraction of these peoples’ devices." And even leaders aren't compromised, the publicity around the attack will drive users away from the sites. This is a tactic that would definitely benefit those who want these see protests to end ASAP. And it would be a far more effective tactic if not for social networks like Twitter that can be accessed to plan resistance,even if the government blocks them -- as long as you have a VPN solution like our Freedome. If the goal is to cripple the protests by targeting protesters, "you don’t have to be a genius to figure out that China is the prime suspect," Micke writes. The significance a state-sponsored RAT attack -- or even a state-condoned attack carried out by privateers -- would be immense. Criminals use malware to target individuals, businesses and governments themselves. Government-sponsored cyberattacks on citizens practicing civil disobedience could be considered an escalation beyond even likely government-sponsored surveillance malware like Flame, which forces businesses to consider malware attacks from their own governments. Over the last year we've learned just how far suspicious governments will go to play defense against internet users who haven't been accused of any crime. Now we're seeing hints that a government may be willing to play offense too.
Yet another massive user ID and password leak. This time it affects about 7 million DropBox users, even if DropBox denies they were hacked. As usual, such a hack means that the data these users have stored in DropBox is in jeopardy. It also means that those who use the same ID and password on many services have much bigger troubles. Let’s see what we can learn from this: Always use unique passwords on the services you use. This does not prevent password leaks, but it limits the damage when a leak occur. (A password manager you trust makes this much easier.) Be alert and change your password as soon as you hear about a leak like this. Right now, we don’t know which users are affected. But if you have an old and weak password, it’s a good idea to change it NOW anyway. Changing it one time too many is better than having your confidential data all over the Internet. Pay attention to the security-awareness of the cloud providers you use. This may not have been DropBox’s fault, but it could have been. This is a good opportunity to mention our own younited, which is built with security in mind from the ground up, and is located in a country where the authorities doesn’t do mass surveillance. BTW, Edward also thinks you should consider alternatives to DropBox. DropBox claims this leak happened in some other service that connect to DropBox. This is a plausible explanation and reminds us about the danger of connecting services to each other. If you enter the password of any service into another service, you must ask yourself two questions. Will this company refrain from misusing my data and does this company protect my password sufficiently? By replicating the password to several places you increase the risk that it leaks out. Don’t do that unless you get a significant benefit and trust all places where the password is stored. Two-factor authentication is a great feature that increase security. Use it whenever possible. It should by now be clear that this kind of massive password leaks aren’t rare incidents. We see a constant stream of these and there are probably many leaks that remain unnoticed, or are noticed but stay out of the headlines. We all have to realize that a leak like this will hit us sooner or later. Sorry for sounding like a broken record, if you still have the same password on several services, you should be busy changing them by now. Safe surfing, Micke Image: Screen capture from dropbox.com PS. Isn't that screenshot a bit funny? Yes, your data in DropBox could really be ANYWHERE right now. :)