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.
Reports that half a billion Yahoo accounts were hacked in 2014 "by a state-sponsored actor" were confirmed today by the tech giant. This hack of "names, email addresses, telephone numbers, birth dates, encrypted passwords and, in some cases, security questions" is the largest in the company's history and one of the most consequential breaches of all time. Our security advisor Sean Sullivan told CNN what Yahoo users need to know right now: [youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kO-70yKF4bE] He also gave a longer interview to Data Breach Today about the wider implications of the hack. The most important takeaway from this attack is you should always use an extra layer of protection -- in this case Yahoo's two-factor authentication on all your accounts -- and never reuse any important password. Even though Yahoo's passwords stored your passwords with encryption, it's still possible for criminals to get access to them, especially if they are weak. A former Yahoo employee told Reuters that the answers to security questions were deliberately left unencrypted to help catch fake accounts more easily because fake accounts that used the same answers over and over. Sean always uses nonsense answers for so-called security questions so they aren't guessable by anyone who knows him or follows him on social media. He recommends you do the same. So what should you do now? Sean recommends you "walk, not run" to your Yahoo account to disable your security questions and change your password -- and change them on any other site where you've used them to something unique. Make sure you create non-human passwords -- not patterns like yahoo1985. Make them long and difficult to remember. If they're between 20 and 32 characters, they are nearly uncrackable, as our senior researcher Jarno Niemelä recommends. And to deal with all that complexity, use a password manager like our F-Secure KEY, which is free on one device. You can also store your nonsense answers to your security questions in there. Then turn on two-factor authentication, if you haven't already. If you're wondering who might have carried out such a massive attack, Sean does have a hypothesis. [Image by Christian Barmala | Flickr]
Many Android users (myself included) have long found it annoying that creating a working portable hotspot is not possible while using a VPN on the device that shares the connection. From the user interface to the lines of code that power the app behind it, a driving principle of designing Freedome has always been to make the kind of VPN that only makes your online experience better, without hindering it in any way. Tethering with VPN is now possible This is why we are extremely happy - both personally and for our users - to announce that our new Android release (out now on Google Play) makes it possible to have Freedome turned on while sharing your connection with other devices. We are also the first (as far as we know) major VPN provider to make this happen. Instructions on setting up a portable hotspot The new update automatically allows you to create a portable hotspot with Freedome VPN, so the instructions are fairly simple. Download Freedome VPN on your Android Turn on the portable hotspot feature from your Android settings Keeping it simple, as usual! A note on privacy It’s worth noting for the sake of your privacy that the tethered device’s traffic will NOT go through the VPN tunnel of the device sharing the connection. As Freedome lead Android developer Antti Eskola (who, by the way, you can thank for making this feature a reality) says: “Android does not allow tethered devices access to the VPN tunnel. This is a deliberate choice forced by Android for security reasons. For instance, when using VPN to access your employer’s network, they might not want your friends and family there. Also a VPN tunnel shared with others wouldn’t really be a private network anymore” In other words, remember to use Freedome on laptops and any other devices you connect to your own hotspots with. If you have any questions, drop us a line on Twitter. Enjoy!
If you don't want to read the manual for the new Wi-Fi-connected device you just installed in your home, do yourself a favor and at least check how to change the default password. A new report finds that more than 100,000 devices in the United Kingdom alone could be possibly be accessed by peeping strangers. How is this possible? "Two words," explains F-Secure security advisor Sean Sullivan. "Default settings." Most consumers don't seem to imagine that their baby monitor, web cam of Wi-Fi router might be targeted by a hacker. "That’s called security through obscurity and it just does not work," Sean explains. "There are 'deep-web' search engines --such as Shodan -- that routinely scan for devices on the Internet. And just about anybody can find interesting things there that shouldn’t be publicly accessible but are." Often all online intruders need to do is type in the password that the manufacture sent the device out with. "You need to change the webcam’s password to something complex and unique," he says. "Don’t worry about having to type it all the time, you’ll probably only need to configure the associated mobile app once. And then the app will remember the password for you." This one simple step will greatly reduce your risk of having your devices hacked. Still many of us won't do it. The time to get rid of this terrible habit of leaving default passwords untouched is now, before our homes become so overrun by Wi-Fi-connected devices that hackers begin to devote serious resources to this sort of intrusion and possibly find some convenient way to monetize it. So don't let your fear of not being able to remember the passwords for all these devices become the weak link in your security. "Once you’ve set your secure password, store it someplace safe for future use," Sean says. He suggests a using a password safe like F-Secure KEY or a piece of paper in a secure location in your home. Just don't store it anywhere in sight of a webcam that still is using its default password. [Image by DAVID BURILLO | Flickr]