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.
When it comes to technology, students are more connected than ever. But there also seems to be a serious disconnect between what kids and parents think about teens online activity. A recent survey of online teens conducted for the Cybersecurity Alliance found that 6 of 10 students had created social media accounts without their parents knowledge. But only 28 percent of parents suspected their offspring had secret accounts. This suggests a lot of parents are just plain oblivious of their kids' online sneakiness. And other findings are equally troubling. While two-thirds of parents expected their kids would report any online incident that made them uncomfortable, only one-third of students said they would report such incidents. And just under half of the teens said they'd seek their parents help for problems online compared to the 65 percent of moms and dads who expected their teens to share their online problems with them "most" or "all the time." This confusion between what teens and parents think about online conduct suggests that parents need to be more proactive in preparing their kids for the challenges of having access to the world through devices that fit in our pockets. One strategy is to establish a history of discussing technology with you by racking as many positive interactions related to online life before your kids are faced with a crisis. The better they feel about talking to you about tech, the better chances they'll reach out to you when they're facing a real crisis. What's a better excuse to talk technology than when you're send your kid back to school? Here are few topics of discussion to consider before the first class begins. Parental controls If you're worried about the content your younger kids can see as they use the family PC, you can manage that through parental controls feature. This gives you a chance to explain that you want to protect them from inappropriate sites and strangers so you can feel confident about them having fun the web. But parental control doesn't just have to be a negative. The power to control your kids' time online, means you can also set up online reward time -- such as an hour or two when homework is done. Apps Downloading an app to your mobile device could mean you're inviting strangers to access your phone. Some apps may demand access to your kid’s camera, microphone, contacts and photos. Use the Application Privacy feature to go through your apps together to see what kind of permissions are being accessed. Reviewing privacy settings of social networking sites also provides a chance for your kids to ask questions or express concerns. Privacy There are several apps your kids can use to make sure a mobile device's data stays private, even if it gets lost. You can use Android's locate, lock and wipe feature to help find a misplaced device or to delete all personal data in a worst case scenario. Make sure your kids know that connecting over "free Wi-Fi" can expose your data and possibly even your passwords to strangers. Avoid that by connecting via mobile networks or by using a VPN app. Also make sure that they lock their devices using an unguessable code. Security hygiene Some parents need basic security reminders as badly as kids do, whether they're just getting online or heading to university. So remind yourself and your kids to use strong unique passwords for all their most important accounts. Your passwords shouldn't use any words from the dictionary or anything someone could guess by looking at your social media. Remind them that "free" online is almost always a bad sign. Don't click on links and attachments in emails that you weren't expecting. And remind your kids that anything they post online, even on sites that promise to delete things after twenty-four hours, could be seen by anyone -- even your parents. An open and honest conversation reduces chances that a uncomfortable situation online will become a crisis. So before your kids go back to school, start talking about how important it is to you that they connect safely, especially when you're not watching them.
A little iPhone history was made this month -- a iOS device was infected by just clicking on a link. This sort of attack had previously only worked on devices where the owner had purposely installed a "jailbreak" hack. So before you do anything -- even read the rest of this post -- you should update your iOS software to the latest version of iOS 9, or iOS 10 beta, which has some nice new privacy features. Here's how this historic attack happened, according to The Verge: Earlier this month, an Emirati human rights activist named Ahmed Mansoor got a suspicious text. It promised new details of torture in the country’s state prisons, along with a link to follow if he was interested. If Mansoor had followed the link, it would have jailbroken his phone on the spot and implanted it with malware, capable of logging encrypted messages, activating the microphone and secretly tracking its movements. To our cyber security advisor Erka Koivunen, this is a glaring example of a threat that is not "advanced" -- as in APT, advanced persistent threat. Think about what goes into a real APT. "They do reconnaissance properly and understand what the victim is susceptible to. They have good timing and only create visible noise when it suits their interest," he told us. "And they have a plan B ready in case someone starts snooping their activities." Here, the the most exploitable iPhone vulnerability ever known has now been exposed and patched -- for what? It's a bit baffling to Erka who compares it to throwing "expensive exploits at this guy like kids throwing rocks." You just don't see zero-day vulnerabilities like this -- especially on what had been one of the more secure platforms available -- that often. This has some security researchers thinking: Perverse incentives: Should I take up political activism so I get more interesting 0day sent my way? /me wonders — halvarflake (@halvarflake) August 26, 2016 //platform.twitter.com/widgets.js So, if you haven't already, update now. And if you're involved in politics in *any way* whatsoever, realize that someone will try to hack you -- sooner or later. So beware of those links in strange texts and email attachments in general. [Image by Sean MacEntee via Flickr]
Bitcoin has not only changed the economics of cybercrime by providing crooks with an encrypted, nearly anonymous payment system autonomous from any central bank. It's also changed researchers' ability to track how much money criminals are making. "Bitcoin is based on Blockchain, and Blockchain is a public ledger of transactions. So all Bitcoin transactions are public," explains Mikko Hyppönen, F-Secure's Chief Research Officer. "Now, you don’t know who is who. But we can see money moving around, and we can see the amounts." Every victim of Ransomware -- malware that encrypts files and demands a payment for their release -- is given a unique wallet to transfer money into. Once paid, some ransomware gangs move the bitcoins to a central wallet. "We've been monitoring some of those wallets," Mikko says. "And we see Bitcoins worth millions and millions. We see a lot of money." Watching crooks rake in so much money, tax-free, got him thinking: "I began to wonder if there are in fact cybercrime unicorns." A cybercrime unicorn? (View this as a PDF) A tech unicorn is a privately held tech company valued at more than a billion dollars. Think Uber, AirBNB or Spotify -- only without the investors, the overhead and oversight. (Though the scam is so profitable that some gangs actually have customer service operations that could rival a small startup.) "Can we use this comparison model to cybercrime gangs?" Mikko asks. "We probably can’t." It's simply too hard to cash out. Investors in Uber have people literally begging to buy their stakes in the company. Ransomware gangs, however, have to continually imagine ways to turn their Bitcoin into currency. "They buy prepaid cards and then they sell these cards on Ebay and Craigslist," he says. "A lot of those gangs also use online casinos to launder the money." But even that's not so easy, even if the goal is to sit down at a online table and attempt to lose all your money to another member of your gang. "If you lose large amounts of money you will get banned. So the gangs started using bots that played realistically and still lose – but not as obviously." Law enforcement is well aware of extremely alluring economics of this threat. In 2015, the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center received "2,453 complaints identified as Ransomware with losses of over $1.6 million." In 2016, hardly has a month gone by without a high-profile case like Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center paying 40 Bitcoin, about $17,000 USD at the time, to recover its files. And these are just the cases we're hearing about. The scam is so effective that it seemed that the FBI was recommending that victims actually pay the ransom. But it turned out their answer was actually more nuanced. "The official answer is the FBI does not advise on whether or not people should pay," Sean Sullivan, F-Secure Security Advisor, writes. "But if victims haven’t taken precautions… then paying is the only remaining alternative to recover files." What sort of precautions? For Mikko, the answer obvious. "Backups. If you get hit you restore yesterday’s backup and carry on working. It could be more cumbersome if it’s not just one workstation, if your whole network gets hit. But of course you should always have good, up to date, offline backups. And 'offline' is the key!" What's also obvious is that too few people are prepared when Ransomware hits. Barring any disruptions to the Bitcoin market, F-Secure Labs predicts this threat will likely persist, with even more targeted efforts designed to elicit even greater sums. If you end up in an unfortunate situation when your files are held hostage, remember that you're dealing with someone who thinks of cybercrime as a business. So you can always try to negotiate. What else do you have to lose?