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!
See that floppy disc? That's how F-Secure Labs used to get malware to analyze. Nowadays, of course, it's much different, Andy Patel from the Labs explained in a recent post, "What's The Deal with Scanning Engines?" In just a few hundred words, Andy lays out what makes modern protection so different from the anti-virus that you remember from the 80s, 90s or even the early 00s. And it's not just that floppy disks the Labs once analyzed have been replaced by almost any sort of digital input, down to a piece of memory or a network stream. The whole post is worth checking out if you're interested in how relentless modern internet security must be to keep up with the panoply of online threats we face. But here's a quick look at five of the key components of endpoint protection that work in tandem to stop attacks in their tracks, as described by Andy: Scanning engines. Today’s detections are really just complex computer programs, designed to perform intricate sample analysis directly on the client. Modern detections are designed to catch thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of samples. URL blocking. Preventing a user from being exposed to a site hosting an exploit kit or other malicious content negates the need for any further protection measures. We do this largely via URL and IP reputation cloud queries. Spam blocking and email filtering also happen here. Exploit detection. If a user does manage to visit a site hosting an exploit kit, and that user is running vulnerable software, any attempt to exploit that vulnerable software will be blocked by our behavioral monitoring engine. Network and on-access scanning. If a user receives a malicious file via email or download, it will be scanned on the network or when it is written to disk. If the file is found to be malicious, it will be removed from the user’s system. Behavioral blocking. Assuming no file-based detection existed for the object, the user may then go on to open or execute the document, script, or program. At this point, malicious behavior will be blocked by our behavioral engine and again, the file will be removed. The fact is, a majority of malware delivery mechanisms are easily blocked behaviorally. In most cases, when we find new threats, we also discover that we had, in the distant past, already added logic addressing the mechanisms it uses.If you're interested in knowing more about behavioral engines, check out this post in which Andy makes then easy to understand by comparing the technology to securing an office building. So you must be wondering, does this all work? Is it enough? Well, our experts and our computers are always learning. But in all the tests this year run by independent analysts AV-Comparatives, we’ve blocked 100% of the real-world threats thrown at us. Cheers, Jason
The Internet is pretty cool. You can use it to learn about things happening all over the world. You can start your own blog or social media account to share your views and speak up about the things you care about. You can stay in touch with people that live far away. It’s really all about connecting people, and it’s changed how people live their lives. The odd thing about all this connecting is that it's surprisingly easy to become disconnected from actual people. Spending time in front of a computer screen, especially when working in roles that involve lots of engineering or programming, can put people out of the picture. All too often, things get reduced to bits and pieces of information. People are what’s important to companies. Not just employees, but all the people involved with a business. And many companies say that the customer is #1, but they’ll have employees who never interact with the people they’re serving. So in this era of hyper connectivity, it’s easy for companies and employees to lose touch with the people that are actually paying their salaries. So Donal Crotty, F-Secure’s Director of Customer Advocacy, started a new tradition in 2015 to celebrate how we feel about customers, give them an opportunity to candidly share their views on the company with the Fellows that work here, and learn more about the company and the people that help make it a success. It’s called Customer Day. “Not everyone at F-Secure has the pleasure of actually meeting the people they’re trying to help,” says Donal. “It’s just the nature of some jobs. But it’s a real shame, because all the metrics and analytical tools companies use to gauge how happy or unhappy customers actually are simply aren’t enough. Numbers and data are no replacement for people, and that’s what Customer Day is for.” So today is the 2nd annual Customer Day at F-Secure (#fscustomerday16 on Twitter). And here at our Helsinki headquarters, as well as several of our regional offices around the world, Fellows and customers are coming together to connect with each other and learn more about the people and products. And have a bit of fun too. “IT companies will often say that they’re about people and not technology. But I’m not sure how many of them actually make the effort to put the people that build products and provide behind the scenes services in front of customers” says Donal. “We, as in people in companies, talk about customer experience, but it takes something more than just talking about it to make it meaningful. I like to think of it as a type of feeling. Our technology enables, but the feeling we give to customers is what we want them to live with.” Images provided by Bret Pulkka-Stone.
IT companies used to have a pretty bad image. It’s not that they’re bad companies giving people bad jobs. They just never screamed “job satisfaction” to the general public. The stereotype of IT companies as inhuman, mundane places to work became so well-known that a hilarious comedy from the 90’s called Office Space satirized the idea. The movie told the story of a disgruntled programmer who rebelled against the soulless, life-sucking office environment of the IT company he worked for in order to find happiness. The movie and the stereotype are a bit old now. But I think it’s still safe to assume that the environment represented in Office Space, and the lifestyles of the people who work there, is something everyone would like to avoid. And according to Universum – a research firm that specialized in employer branding – F-Secure is ahead of the game in offering people a place where they’d actually LIKE to work. At least according to IT students. F-Secure was ranked as the 4th most attractive employer amongst Finnish IT students in Universum’s 2016 Most Attractive Employers ranking (up from 5th in last year’s rankings), beat out only by Google, Microsoft, and Finnish game company Supercell. So what is it that makes F-Secure such an appealing employer? Well, here’s a few things we’re doing that separates us from the kind of company shown in Office Space. We don't box people into cubicles People at F-Secure aren’t expected to isolate themselves from other Fellows and sit by themselves in cubicles. Our Fellows work together in whatever way makes them feel comfortable. In fact, as a global company with offices and people working all over the world, we often think outside the box and take whatever approach lets people work together to get the best results. We don’t stop at securing computers – we secure society This sentiment, recently expressed by F-Secure Chief Research Officer Mikko Hypponen, highlights the importance of what we do at F-Secure. We deal with real adversaries and security threats, whether that’s an advanced persistent threat group working on behalf of a government, or a gang of online extortionists looking to spread ransomware or steal data to blackmail people. Having active adversaries to work against presents us with a constantly evolving set of threats to people and companies. The opportunity to combat those threats makes our days challenging, but exciting and fulfilling. We know how to chill out Cyber security is a tough business. As mentioned above, we deal with real adversaries and threats. When we’re doing our jobs, we’re focused 100% on winning. But we also understand it’s important to be able to unwind, so Fellows are encouraged to enjoy themselves at work. Our HQ has things like a sauna, a gym, games, and other things for people to enjoy when they need to step out of the fight for a few minutes. With great power comes great responsibility, but everyone needs some time to chill out (even if it’s in a scorching hot sauna). So F-Secure has a lot going for it, and based on Universum’s rankings, it looks like that’s paying off. But why don’t you tell us what’s most important to you in a workplace. Finnish IT students already think F-Secure would be a great place to work, but we’re always ready to do more. And why not check out our current openings to see if there’s a place that’s right for you. [polldaddy poll=9407357] Image: A team of Aalto University students that won an award for a software project sponsored by F-Secure. Read more here.