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 first known use of the term "trick or treat" was found in a November 1927 edition of Blackie, Alberta's Canada Herald: Hallowe’en provided an opportunity for real strenuous fun. No real damage was done except to the temper of some who had to hunt for wagon wheels, gates, wagons, barrels, etc., much of which decorated the front street. The youthful tormentors were at back door and front demanding edible plunder by the word “trick or treat” to which the inmates gladly responded and sent the robbers away rejoicing. "No real damage" from "youthful tormentors?" Sounds a lot like the early days of hacking. Unfortunately those days are long over. “It’s a business,” F-Secure's Chief Research Officer Mikko Hyppönen told Wired UK. “There’s a whole structure there that’s needed,” F-Secure's "Cyber Gandalf" Andy Patel told ITPRO. “An individual can’t just go in and do this now; it’s not a one man job… these are companies.” The cyber crime "industry" has raked in hundreds of millions and possibly even billions of dollars. And it does it, in general, by counting on people to make mistakes. “People do stupid stuff,” Mikko explained. “You cannot patch people.” The first step to avoiding a threat is knowing it exists. So this Halloween as you search for treats online, look out for these tricks. Ransomware F-Secure Labs has warned about malware that holds your digital files hostage to demand a ransom for most of the last decade. But it's in the last year that the threat has burst into the mainstream and become something you can't go a few weeks without hearing about it on the news. How do you avoid this trick? Keep your system software updated and run security software at all times. Make regular backups of every file that matters on your computer and never click on attachments and links in emails that you weren't expecting. Find My iPhone Scam This scam answers the question, "How can losing your iPhone get any worse?" People who use the "Find My iPhone" app have been targeted by criminals who've gotten ahold of their phones with a scam that allows the crooks to gain access to the device and -- possibly -- the owner's most intimate financial details. How do you avoid this? Check the URL before entering any confidential data. Or as Apple says, "You should never enter your Apple account information on any non-Apple website." Phishing Scams As cyber criminals have gone pro, they've gotten better at using old tactics that we thought had faded away -- like email attachments and phishing scams. Like the trick that gives crooks access to stolen iPhones, a phishing scam just tricks you into entering your private credentials into the wrong site. And it then uses those credentials to hack your email, financial accounts, etc. Checking URLs before entering data is crucial because with the explosion of photo editing software and skills, it's now easier than ever to make a fake site look real. Experts believe that one wrong click to a fake site led the chair of a major presidential campaign to expose his entire inbox to the world. Having someone else leak your password Millions and millions of passwords have been leaked in 2016, some from breaches of data that took place years ago. It might not sound scary that your Yahoo! password from 2005 is now public, except if you are still using that password today on a critical account. This is why you need to use strong, unique password for each important account. Yes, remembering all that is almost impossible. So consider using a tool like F-Secure's KEY to manage your passwords. KEY is free to use on one device. Haunted IoT devices As our homes are getting smarter by connecting almost everything to the internet, they're also getting haunted -- by cyber criminals. A botnet is a network of computers that have been hacked and "enslaved." Security expert Brian Krebs was recently hit by a monster attack on his site that he believes was powered by a botnet powered by "'Internet of Things,” (IoT) devices — routers, IP cameras and digital video recorders (DVRs) that are exposed to the Internet and protected with weak or hard-coded passwords." What can you do? So much of this problem requires manufacturers to improve their security. But you can help by keeping every device updated with the latest software from the manufacturer and always changing your default passwords. [Image by Daniel Lewis | Flickr]
When he was still working in cyber security for the Finnish government, Erka Koivunen met a NATO diplomat that there was "nothing new" about the era we now live in. Foreign envoys have always lived with the constant awareness that their private communications could be "leaked" for their enemies to exploit. "Anything that was written down could eventually be discovered," Erka, who is now an F-Secure Cyber Security Advisor, told me. "So the most sensitive conversations never took place in writing." Given the massive email leaks that have now hit the worlds of business, with the Sony hacks, and politics, with the leaks of U.S. political figures, is this how we should all start thinking? Does everyone alive in the twenty-first century have to operate like a NATO diplomat? Or a C-level executive who knows any word she types could be subpoenaed? Or the campaign chair of a presidential campaign? The answer, unfortunately, seems to be increasingly clear. "Whatever you write, you may need to defend your position in public," Erka said. Relying on an insecure medium The problems with email begin with the general insecurity of it as a means of communication. It's more like sending a postcard than sending a sealed letter, Erka explains. "As soon as the message goes out of your or your company’s systems, you lose control of it," Erka explained. "This is by far the biggest problem of the good-ole-email. Messages can be eavesdropped, altered, delayed, replayed or dropped altogether without you ever knowing." To actually spy on email as it's being transmitted generally requires legal access to telecommunications infrastructure or extraordinary technical knowhow and resources. Think law enforcement or intelligence agencies. Since these groups have a vested interest in cloaking their activities, they had little incentive to engage in the massive sort of leaking of gigabytes of private data we've seen from Wikileaks. However, we appear to be at the end of the era of "the gentleman's agreement" between countries, as cyber policy expert Mara Tam explained on a recent episode of the Risky.Biz podcast. This agreement went something like: "Gentlemen read each other's email, but they don't leak it to the public." The leaks from former CIA contractor Edward Snowden helped make the public aware of how much information the government potentially could access. But the exposure of a private individual's digital communication to the world presents a stark new reality for anyone who conducts business online. "Personal mailboxes store gigabytes’ worth of conversation history that will be a treasure trove for attackers for multiple reasons," Erka said. "There are sensitive discussions about business strategy, customers, competitors, products. There is also internal gossip, badmouthing and other damaging stuff." Activist Naomi Klein told The Intercept that "this sort of indiscriminate dump is precisely what Snowden was trying to protect us from." And we don't yet have a full sense of the potential ways this mass of data can be used against us. A competitor could use private information to tarnish someone’s reputation and hackers can mine the data to prepare for future cyber intrusions or to gain access to your other accounts through password resets. Letting the public decide what's private Leaks have already cost some executives their jobs and could swing the U.S. presidential election. But in a sense, we're all victims of this new risk to all of our privacy. "Whatever you write in an email you have to consider, are you ready for your boss, your spouse, your business partners to read it?" Erka asked. This new reality leads inevitably to the tragedy of self-censorship. Zeynep Tufekci -- a "techno-sociologist" -- has been doing a running commentary on the Wikileaks revelations and is very disturbed by what she's seeing. "People gossiping in internal conversation is not a scandal—but destroying public/private boundaries will paralyze dissent, not the powerful," she tweeted. Wikileaks is releasing more documents than it could ever sift through in the hopes that the newsworthy information will be discerned by interested researchers around the world. But along with potentially relevant items, intensely private information has been revealed. "For example, a suicide attempt was publicized through Podesta indiscriminate dump (Wikileaks tweeted it out)," she noted. "Who will want to be political?" This makes the loss of email seem dire, but perhaps it speaks to a not just a flaw in the medium's security but the medium itself. "The deeper problem with email is that it has never quite settled on a social mode," The New York Times Farhad Manjoo wrote. "An email can be as formal as a legal letter or as tossed off as drive-by insult. This invites confusion." What can you do? So, should you be like that NATO diplomat content to keep all of your deepest secrets out of writing? Can you expect yourself to remove all snark and potentially offensive thoughts from your emails? Should you assume that your email box is like a box of letters in your attic, vulnerable to anyone who can get access to it? These answers are ultimately up to you and how you use -- or don't use -- email. F-Secure security advisor Sean Sullivan has found that young people he's interviewed are increasingly abandoning email as communication tool. "They only have an account -- typically Gmail -- in order to sign up for stuff," he said. If this continues, email is on its way out, whether it's private or not. For now, lawyers, doctors and other professionals with explicit legal responsibilities, email has a much more defined role that cannot be easily abandoned or circumvented. As far as your work email goes, consult your IT staff for guidance as you may be under legal obligation to preserve your data. But for your personal email, Erka suggests you have to at least be aware of how likely you are to be a target and what you can do to contain any potential damage -- besides using a strong unique password for every email account you have and only entering your account information on the secure webpage of your email provider. If you are involved in international politics, for instance, there's no question. You are a target. Hackers are either after your emails or are trying to get access to powerful people in your contacts. If you're someone with no power, no tumultuous relationships and no interest in politics, you're likely not to be on anyone's radar... yet. The problem is no one knows where you'll be in a few years and our inboxes are big enough to last a lifetime. "When everyone is using cloud-based emails like Gmail, there's no need to save space," Erka said. "That's the whole selling point of those services: Never delete anything." If you see the potential for enough damage, you many want these recent leaks as an inspiration to launch a serious spring cleaning of your personal online inboxes, including email and social media. "You may want to delete the messages you don't need and sort the stuff you do want into folders that you take off the web and can store on a secure backup," Erka suggested. Yes, you will lose the convenience of being able to search your Gmail box through a simple interface, but so will potential hackers. He also recommends sharing documents through sharing platforms and cloud services such as Sharepoint, Salesforce or Dropbox. "These links can require separate authentication upon opening and the sender can control how long it will be valid," Erka said. "If the email gets stolen and leaked years later the chances are the link will be invalid by that time." For quick conversations, Sean suggests Wickr, which offers self-destructing messages through a mobile app or a desktop client with easy encryption, something that just doesn't exist for most email. "For professionals, Wickr has a paid service which will retain messages for a legal requirement, and will then securely delete them post-requirement," he said. Regardless of policy, employers have a vested interest in moving their staff away from an over-reliance on email for more than privacy reasons. "Actual phone calls and face-to-face discussions that get out of your chair are probably more useful than email or chat threats," Sean said. "So rather than swap from one to the other – just learn to better utilize what you work with best." These leaks offer a sobering reminder that email is not secure. But, perhaps, the more important message is that it as a means of communication, it was never very smart. [Image by Alan Levine |Flickr]
Cyber security is playing an starring role in the drama surrounding the question of who will be the next president of the United States. "The security aspect of cyber is very, very tough," Republican nominee for president Donald Trump said, when asked about securing American secrets from cyber attacks during the first debate. "And maybe it’s hardly do-able." Even the integrity of the election has been put into doubt by the threat of hacking -- which may be exactly the point. The questions about cyber intrusions into the electoral system and the wild speculations those intrusions provoke can be hard to put in perspective. So here are five basic premises to help you assess the situation as this historic election transpires. It would be almost impossible to hack the entire U.S. election. The biggest reason this U.S. presidential election is unhackable is that most of it doesn't depend on computers. More than three out of four Americans will vote on a paper ballot this November 8, Techcrunch's Ben Dickson reports. And the fact that all Americans don't vote in the same manner points to the biggest reason you probably couldn't hack the election. Each state has its own system, with some federal guidance. Nearly every state lacks sufficient funding to fully upgrade their systems, hence the reliance on outdated technology. So while voting machines are definitely vulnerable to hacking, hitting just the right ones in a systematic way that just happens to sway the electoral college vote in favor of one candidate would involve both a massive investment of time and money and an even larger serving of luck. But that doesn't mean an election can't be "hacked." “To ‘hack’ a US presidential election, all you need to do is to obviously tamper with one county’s system, then leak that the tampering occurred,” our security advisor Sean Sullivan told Dickson. “Many people will rush to assume that all of the other typical issues that occur may also be the result of hacking — and thus, you’ll end up delegitimizing all of the results.” A delegitimized election equals a delegitimized winner. You don't even have to hack an election to hack an election. The hacks of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton's campaign chair John Podesta could end up being far more consequential in swaying the election than hacking either voting processes or actual vote counts -- especially if the resulting leaks end up revealing something extraordinarily damaging to the candidate in the documents being dripped out by Wikileaks. “Owning an election is gold; being able to influence it is silver; knowing the outcome in advance is bronze,” F-Secure cyber security advisor Erka a Koivunen explained. It's pretty clear that someone is at least after the silver in this election. Someone has definitely poking around in the U.S. election system. The United States has been clear that it believes that Russia is trying to hack this election. This month U.S. officials have explicitly stated that the Russians are behind the hack of a contractor that works on the electoral system of the key swing state of Florida. Similar hacks were reported by the states of Arizona and Illinois. U.S. intelligence also believes Russia is behind the hack of Podesta's emails and a security firm believes it found evidence that the nation led by President Vladmir Putin was behind the hack of the DNC. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told CNN that the accusation that it was behind the Podesta hack "flattering." When pressed to confirm or deny his nation's involvement, Lavrov said, “No, we did not deny this, they did not prove it." Trump himself questioned whether the hack actually happened in the second debate and if he's concerned about Russian hacking, he doesn't seem to be showing it. At one point he even -- jokingly, he said later -- asked Russia to hack his opponent's missing emails. Election technology needs to improve quickly. It's safe to say that no matter who is hacking the U.S. elections, the U.S. is probably hacking them, too. The richest nation on Earth is just not engaging, as far as most people can tell, in the leaks that have followed the recent U.S. hacks. In this new era of cyber attacks backed by nation-states or "privateers" employed by nation-states the rules of cyber espionage are unclear and the fog is thick. No matter what happens in 2016, digital technology will play ever-increasing role in both campaigns and election, and the U.S. needs to take steps to ensure the integrity of its elections. Sullivan believes that the Department of Homeland Security should go through with its proposal to declare voting system critical infrastructure and then adapt its defenses to catch up with the threats. “Network monitoring is rapidly becoming a requirement,” he told Techcrunch's Dickson. And voting must be made to feel at least as secure as using your credit card to buy a coffee. “Smartcard technologies are available in several European countries for online identity authentication,” Sullivan said. “They aren’t widely used. If a country such as the United States were to get serious about rolling out such tech, it would be a game changer.” All of this focus on the security of election systems means that there are “more people checking stuff.” The question now is who is putting in more resources -- the attackers or the people doing the checking. [Image by Maryland GovPics | Flickr]