This is the second posting in a three-part series covering common threats a user may encounter.
This series serves as a rough and ready guide, highlighting key features and trends relevant to most users.
Viruses have always loomed large in users’ minds as the poster child of malicious programs – heck, we even call it the anti-virus industry. In the last 10 years or so however, the number of virus infections has nosedived; our Labs, which once dealt with viruses routinely, now sees a proper virus infection about once or twice a month. Today when people talk of ‘viruses’, more often than not what they’re describing is technically a trojan or a worm, and they’re using the term in a general, ‘any malware will do’ kind of way.
That’s not to say viruses are extinct; we still receive a small, if persistent, number of queries about viruses. This may be because many businesses, households and users (both in developed countries and in recently connected developing ones) still use old, out-dated, unpatched machines or programs, or haven’t yet developed a security-conscious habits.
Whatever the case, virus infections will probably still cling on to life for a weary day after, so let’s take a look at them.
The Merriam-Webster online dictionary’s bare-bones definition of a computer virus touches on important elements most users should know, so I’ll just elaborate a bit more on some key concepts:
Last week I compared a virus to a parasite, because not only does it ‘hide’ in another program, but also depends on its host to function. For the virus to run, the unsuspecting user must actively launch the infected program, which in turn launches the virus.
For this reason, virus writers usually create viruses that infect executable files (especially popular programs such as word processors or media files), which have a higher chance of being run; programs with files that get passed around a lot are extra attractive, since they can affect even more potential victims.
A good example is the Microsoft Office suite which, with their huge community of business and personal users, used to be a popular target for macro viruses. We still see queries related to this virus type, though thankfully far less than previously.
If you think of the common cold virus spreading from one person to another, you’ll have a pretty good idea of why this behavior can be so damaging. When a infected file is executed, it searches for and infects new files; if the newly infected files are launched, they find and infect new files in turn, like some evil Multi-Level Marketing operation. At worst, this pattern can lead to every targeted file on the system being infected.
The damage a virus can do by replicating and infecting new files is bad enough; its payload, a completely separate set of nasty actions, can be worse. The range of actions a virus can take is huge – connecting to a remote site, changing the desktop wallpaper, displaying silly notification messages, deleting data files…it really just depends on the virus author’s imagination and programming skills.
If you’re lucky, they’re not that good and you get failed viruses like Virus:W32/Stardust; if they’re good, then you get really nasty beasts like Virus:W32/Virut or Virus:W32/Sality.AA (one of the few viruses we still find regularly active).
With thousands of unique viruses out in the wild, antivirus companies find it necessary to divide them into sub-types. Unlike trojans though, viruses don’t fall into neat categories reflecting their actions; instead, they naturally fall into groupings based on technical differences in the way they infect a file – which is basically gobbledeegook to a user not interested in detailed analysis.
Gnerally, viruses can be divided into two groups – system infectors and file infectors. The majority of viruses are the latter and infect programs or data files. System infectors on the other hand write their malicious code to specific, critical sections of the hard disk containing the operating system, so that while the OS is running its normal routines, it’s also unintentionally executing the virus code.
Fortunately, for most users a virus’s classification is largely academic. For better or for worse, the sheer variety of possible effects each unique virus can have on a file or system makes it more practical to take each virus on a case by case basis.
So let’s go back to the original question that sparked off this series: do you really need to know if it’s a virus – as opposed to, say, a trojan or worm – infecting your computer?
Well, it helps to know because the two malware types tend affect your data and computer in different ways. As a (very) general rule, trojan infections is more about data theft and loss of control over the computer; virus infections tend to result in software disruptions or damage.
Trojans may copy and steal your data, but they don’t usually destroy the data file itself; they may stop programs from running but they don’t destroy the program. A virus on the other hand, insert its own code into a program or data file, and depending on how it does so, may either leave the host completely unharmed and functional, slightly disrupted, or completely non-functional.
Another difference between trojans and viruses that really affects the user involves disinfection. For one thing, a trojan is usually a single, discrete program – getting rid of it tends to be fairly simple, a matter of removing the malicious file and its residuals (registry keys, processes, icons, etc). Removing the trojan also generally doesn’t affect the integrity of other files on the computer.
Viruses are far more nebulous by design – they can be present in multiple files, in different locations. Identifying a virus-infected file may require scanning the entire computer to be sure every affected file is caught. Removing malicious code from an infected file or – if it can’t be saved, deleting the infected file entirely – can also be problematic if the damaged data is important or the program is a critical system component.
And this doesn’t even take into account the virus’s payload, which can produce a whole other set of worries.
Still, there is a ray of hope. If current malware trends persist, we may soon see adware or backdoors promoted to being the newest member of The Big Three, and viruses – as a distinct malware type – can finally be relegated to joining 3½” floppy disks in Computer Hell.
In the meantime, here’s some links to other, more in-depth resources on viruses:
Or partially available on Google Books:
Coming soon – Worms!
Windows upgrades used to be like an international holiday, as PC users stepped up and shared what they liked -- much of Windows 7 --- and hated -- all of Windows 8 and Vista -- about the latest version of the world's most popular operating system. In this way, Windows 10 is the end of an era. This is the "final version" of the OS, which is now almost truly universal, meaning it has a similar feel across nearly all Windows-compatible device. After you step up to this version, there will be continual updates but no new version to upgrade to. It's the birth of "Windows as a service," according to Verge. So if you're taking free upgrade to the new version or getting a new computer are device, here are 5 things you need to know as you get used to the Windows that could be with you for the rest of your life. 1.Our Chief Research Office Mikko Hypponen noted Windows 10 still hides double extensions by default. “Consider a file named doubleclick.pdf.bat. If ‘hide extensions’ is enabled, then this will be shown in File Explorer as ‘doubleclick.pdf’. You, the user, might go ahead and double-click on it, because it’s just a PDF, right?” F-Secure Security Advisor Tom Gaffney told Infosecurity Magazine. “In truth, it’s a batch file, and whatever commands it contains will run when you double-click on it.” Keep this in mind when you do or DON'T click on unknown files. 2. You could end up sharing your Wi-Fi connection with all your contacts. There's some debate about whether or not Windows 10's Wi-Fi Sense is a security risk in that it shares your Wi-Fi connection with social media contacts by default, as Windows Phone has for a while now. ZDNet's Ed Bott says no, noting that "you have to very consciously enable sharing for a network. It's not something you'll do by accident." Security expert Brian Krebs is more skeptical, given how we're "conditioned to click 'yes' to these prompts." "In theory, someone who wanted access to your small biz network could befriend an employee or two, and drive into the office car park to be in range, and then gain access to the wireless network," The Register's Simon Rockman wrote. "Some basic protections, specifically ones that safeguard against people sharing their passwords, should prevent this." Gaffney notes that Wi-Fi Sense is “open to accidental and deliberate misuse.” So what to do? Krebs recommends the following: Prior to upgrade to Windows 10, change your Wi-Fi network name/SSID to something that includes the terms “_nomap_optout”. [This is Windows opt-out for Wi-Fi Sense]. After the upgrade is complete, change the privacy settings in Windows to disable Wi-Fi Sense sharing. 3. There are some privacy issues you should know about. Basically "whatever happens, Microsoft knows what you're doing," The Next Web's Mic Wright noted. Microsoft, according to its terms and conditions, can gather data “from you and your devices, including for example ‘app use data for apps that run on Windows’ and ‘data about the networks you connect to.'” And they can also disclose it to third parties as they feel like it. You can't do much about that but you should check your privacy settings and you can stop advertisers from know exactly who you are. Want a deep dive into the privacy issues? Visit Extreme Tech. 4. The new Action Center could be useful but it could get annoying. This notification center makes Windows feel more like an iPhone -- because isn't the point of everything digital to eventually merge into the same thing? BGR's Zach Epstein wrote "one location for all of your notifications is a welcome change." But it can get overwhelming. "In Windows 10, you can adjust notifications settings by clicking the notifications icon in the system tray," he wrote. "The click All settings, followed by System and then Notifications & actions." 5. Yes, F-Secure SAFE, Internet Security and Anti-Virus are all Windows 10 ready. [Image by Brett Morrison | Flickr]
You have all heard the classic mantra of computer security: use common sense, patch your system and install antivirus. That is still excellent advice, but the world is changing. We used to repeat that mantra over and over to the end users. Now we are entering a new era where we have to stress the importance of updates to manufacturers. We did recently write about how Chrysler reacted fairly quickly to stop Jeeps from being controlled remotely. They made a new firmware version for the vehicles, but didn’t have a good channel to distribute the update. Stagefright on Android demonstrates a similar problem, but potentially far more widespread. Let’s first take a look at Stagefright. What is it really? Stagefright is the name of a module deep inside the Android system. This module is responsible for interpreting video files and playing them on the device. The Stagefright bug is a vulnerability that allows and attacker to take over the system with specially crafted video content. Stagefright is used to automatically create previews of content received through many channels. This is what makes the Stagefright bug really bad. Anyone who can send you a message containing video can potentially break into your Android device without any actions from you. You can use common sense and not open fishy mail attachments, but that doesn’t work here. Stagefright takes a look at inbound content automatically in many cases so common sense won't help. Even worse. There’s not much we can do about it, except wait for a patch from the operator or phone vendor. And many users will be waiting in vain. This is because of how the Android system is developed and licensed. Google is maintaining the core Linux-based system and releasing it under an open license. Phone vendors are using Android, but often not as it comes straight from Google. They try to differentiate and modifies Android to their liking. Google reacted quickly and made a fix for the Stagefright bug. This fix will be distributed to their own Nexus-smartphones soon. But it may not be that simple for the other vendors. They need to verify that the patch is compatible with their customizations, and releasing it to their customers may be a lengthy process. If they even want to patch handsets. Some vendors seems to see products in the cheap smartphone segment as disposable goods. They are not supposed to be long-lived and post-sale maintenance is just a cost. Providing updates and patches would just postpone replacement of the phone, and that’s not in the vendor’s interest. This attitude explains why several Android vendors have very poor processes and systems for sending out updates. Many phones will never be patched. Let’s put this into perspective. 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! Let’s however keep in mind that there is no widespread malware utilizing this vulnerability at the time of writing. But all the ingredients needed to make a massive and harmful worm outbreak are there. Also remember that the bug has existed in Android for over five years, but not been publically known until now. It is perfectly possible that intelligence agencies are utilizing it silently for their own purposes. But can we do anything to protect us? That’s the hard question. This is not intended to be a comprehensive guide, but it is however possible to give some simple advice. You can stop worrying if you have a really old device with an Android version lower than 2.2. It’s not vulnerable. Google Nexus devices will be patched soon. A patch has also been released for devices with the CyanogenMod system. The privacy-optimized BlackPhone is naturally a fast-mover in cases like this. Other devices? It’s probably best to just google for “Stagefright” and the model or vendor name of your device. Look for two things. Information about if and when your device will receive an update and for instructions about how to tweak settings to mitigate the threat. Here’s an example. Safe surfing, Micke Image by Rob Bulmahn under CC BY 2.0
This is the fourth in a series of posts about Cyber Defense that happened to real people in real life, costing very real money. It was only just past 1 pm, but Magda was already exhausted. She had recently fired her assistant, so she was now having to personally handle all of the work at her law office. With the aching pain in her head and monstrous hunger mounting in her stomach, Magda thought it was time for a break. She sat at her desk with a salad she had bought earlier that morning and decided she’d watch a short online video her friends had recently told her about. She typed the title in the browser and clicked on a link that took her to the site. A message popped up that the recording couldn’t be played because of a missing plugin. Magda didn’t have much of an idea what the “plugin” was, which wasn’t surprising considering that her computer knowledge was basic at best – she knew enough to use one at work, but that was pretty much all. It was the recently sacked assistant, supported by an outsourced IT firm, who took care of all things related to computers and software. A post-it stuck to Magda’s desk had been unsuccessfully begging her to install an antivirus program. “What was this about?”, Magda tried to remember. At moments like this, she regretted letting the girl go. After some time, she recalled that her assistant had mentioned something about a monthly subscription plan for some antivirus software to protect the computers, tablets and mobile phones. This solution, flexible and affordable for small businesses like Magda’s firm, had also been also recommended by the outsourced IT provider. Despite a nagging feeling that something wasn’t right, she clicked “install”. After a few seconds, the video actually played. Magda was very proud of herself: she had made the plugin thing work! A few days later, she logged into her internet banking system to pay her firm’s bills. As she looked at the balance of the account, she couldn’t believe her eyes. The money was gone! The transaction history showed transfers to accounts that were completely unknown to her. She couldn’t understand how somebody was able to break in and steal her money. The bank login page was encrypted, and besides that, she was the only person who knew the login credentials... At the bank she learnt that they had recorded a user login and transfer orders. Everything had been according to protocol, so the bank had no reason to be suspicious. The bank’s security manager suggested to Magda that she may have been the victim of a hacker’s attack. The IT firm confirmed this suspicion after inspecting Magda’s computer. Experts discovered that the plugin Magda had downloaded to watch the video online was actually malware that stole the login credentials of email accounts, social networking sites and online banking services. Magda immediately changed her passwords and decided to secure them better. She finally had good antivirus software installed, which is now protecting all of the data stored on her computer. She recalled that her bank had long been advising to do that, but she had disregarded their advice. If only she hadn’t... Her omission cost her a lot of money. She was happy, though, that money was all she lost. She didn’t even want to imagine what might have happened if any of her case or clients information had been compromised. That would have been the end of her legal career. "If you have to use dangerous plugins like Java to do banking, you can enable those in one browser and use it only for the banking stuff," F-Secure Director of Security Response Antti Tikkanen explains. To get an inside look at business security, be sure to follow our Business Insider blog.