to Computer Viruses
viruses are mysterious and grab our attention. On the one
hand, viruses show us how vulnerable we are. A properly engineered
virus can have an amazing effect on the worldwide Internet.
On the other hand, they show how sophisticated and interconnected
human beings have become. For example, the Melissa virus --
which became a global phenomenon in March 1999 -- was so powerful
that it forced Microsoft and a number of other very large
companies to completely turn off their e-mail systems until
the virus could be contained. The ILOVEYOU virus in 2000 had
a similarly devastating effect. That's pretty impressive when
you consider that the Melissa and ILOVEYOU viruses are incredibly
We will discuss viruses -- both "traditional" viruses
and the newer e-mail viruses -- so that you can learn how
they work and also understand how to protect yourself. Viruses
in general are on the wane, but occasionally a person finds
a new way to create one, and that's when they make the news.
of Virus Infections Up
you listen to the news, you hear about many different forms
of electronic infection. The most common are:
- A virus is a small piece of software that piggybacks on
real programs. For example, a virus might attach itself
to a program such as a spreadsheet program. Each time the
spreadsheet program runs, the virus runs, too, and it has
the chance to reproduce (by attaching to other programs)
or wreak havoc.
- E-mail viruses - An e-mail
virus moves around in e-mail messages, and usually replicates
itself by automatically mailing itself to dozens of people
in the victim's e-mail address book.
- Worms - A worm is a small
piece of software that uses computer networks and security
holes to replicate itself. A copy of the worm scans the
network for another machine that has a specific security
hole. It copies itself to the new machine using the security
hole, and then starts replicating from there, as well.
- Trojan horses - A Trojan
horse is simply a computer program. The program claims to
do one thing (it may claim to be a game) but instead does
damage when you run it (it may erase your hard disk). Trojan
horses have no way to replicate automatically.
is a "Virus"? Up
Computer viruses are called viruses because they
share some of the traits of biological viruses. A computer
virus passes from computer to computer like a biological virus
passes from person to person. There are similarities at a
deeper level, as well. A biological virus is not a living
thing. A virus is a fragment of DNA inside a protective jacket.
Unlike a cell, a virus has no way to do anything or to reproduce
by itself -- it is not alive. Instead, a biological virus
must inject its DNA into a cell. The viral DNA then uses the
cell's existing machinery to reproduce itself. In some cases,
the cell fills with new viral particles until it bursts, releasing
the virus. In other cases, the new virus particles bud off
the cell one at a time, and the cell remains alive.
A computer virus shares some of these traits. A computer virus
must piggyback on top of some other program or document in
order to get executed. Once it is running, it is then able
to infect other programs or documents. Obviously, the analogy
between computer and biological viruses stretches things a
bit, but there are enough similarities that the name sticks.
is a "Worm"? Up
Worms use up computer time and network bandwidth
when they are replicating, and they often have some sort of
evil intent. A worm called Code Red made huge headlines in
2001. Experts predicted that this worm could clog the Internet
so effectively that things would completely grind to a halt.
The Code Red worm slowed down Internet traffic
when it began to replicate itself, but not nearly as badly
as predicted. Each copy of the worm scans the Internet for
Windows NT or Windows 2000 servers that do not have the Microsoft
security patch installed (see sidebar). Each time it finds
an unsecured server, the worm copies itself to that server.
The new copy then scans for other servers to infect. Depending
on the number of unsecured servers, a worm could conceivably
create hundreds of thousands of copies.
The Code Red worm is designed to do three things:
- Replicate itself for the first 20
days of each month
- Replace Web pages on infected servers
with a page that declares "Hacked by Chinese"
- Launch a concerted attack on the
White House Web server in an attempt to overwhelm it
The most common version of Code Red is a variation,
typically referred to as a mutated strain, of the original
Ida Code Red that replicated itself on July 19, 2001. According
to the National Infrastructure Protection Center:
The Ida Code Red Worm, which was first reported by eEye Digital
Security, is taking advantage of known vulnerabilities in
the Microsoft IIS Internet Server Application Program Interface
(ISAPI) service. Un-patched systems are susceptible to a "buffer
overflow" in the Idq.dll, which permits the attacker
to run embedded code on the affected system. This memory resident
worm, once active on a system, first attempts to spread itself
by creating a sequence of random IP addresses to infect unprotected
web servers. Each worm thread will then inspect the infected
computer's time clock. The NIPC has determined that the trigger
time for the DOS execution of the Ida Code Red Worm is at
0:00 hours, GMT on July 20, 2001. This is 8:00 PM, EST.
Upon successful infection, the worm waits for
the appointed hour and connects to the www.whitehouse.gov
domain. This attack consists of the infected systems simultaneously
sending 100 connections to port 80 of www.whitehouse.gov (126.96.36.199).
The U.S. government changed the IP address of
www.whitehouse.gov to circumvent that particular threat from
the worm and issued a general warning about the worm, advising
users of Windows NT or Windows 2000 Web servers to make sure
they have installed the security patch.
Viruses Spread UpTop
Early viruses were pieces of code attached to
a common program like a popular game or a popular word processor.
A person might download an infected game from a bulletin board
and run it. A virus like this is a small piece of code embedded
in a larger, legitimate program. Any virus is designed to
run first when the legitimate program gets executed. The virus
loads itself into memory and looks around to see if it can
find any other programs on the disk. If it can find one, it
modifies it to add the virus's code to the unsuspecting program.
Then the virus launches the "real program." The
user really has no way to know that the virus ever ran. Unfortunately,
the virus has now reproduced itself, so two programs are infected.
The next time either of those programs gets executed, they
infect other programs, and the cycle continues.
If one of the infected programs is given to another
person on a floppy disk, or if it is uploaded to a bulletin
board, then other programs get infected. This is how the virus
The spreading part is the infection phase of the
virus. Viruses wouldn't be so violently despised if all they
did was replicate themselves. Unfortunately, most viruses
also have some sort of destructive attack phase where they
do some damage. Some sort of trigger will activate the attack
phase, and the virus will then "do something" --
anything from printing a silly message on the screen to erasing
all of your data. The trigger might be a specific date, or
the number of times the virus has been replicated, or something
As virus creators got more sophisticated, they
learned new tricks. One important trick was the ability to
load viruses into memory so they could keep running in the
background as long as the computer remained on. This gave
viruses a much more effective way to replicate themselves.
Another trick was the ability to infect the boot sector on
floppy disks and hard disks. The boot sector is a small program
that is the first part of the operating system that the computer
loads. The boot sector contains a tiny program that tells
the computer how to load the rest of the operating system.
By putting its code in the boot sector, a virus can guarantee
it gets executed. It can load itself into memory immediately,
and it is able to run whenever the computer is on. Boot sector
viruses can infect the boot sector of any floppy disk inserted
in the machine, and on college campuses where lots of people
share machines they spread like wildfire.
In general, both executable and boot sector viruses
are not very threatening any more. The first reason for the
decline has been the huge size of today's programs. Nearly
every program you buy today comes on a compact disc. Compact
discs cannot be modified, and that makes viral infection of
a CD impossible. The programs are so big that the only easy
way to move them around is to buy the CD. People certainly
can't carry applications around on a floppy disk like they
did in the 1980s, when floppies full of programs were traded
like baseball cards. Boot sector viruses have also declined
because operating systems now protect the boot sector.
Both boot sector viruses and executable viruses
are still possible, but they are a lot harder now and they
don't spread nearly as quickly as they once could. Call it
"shrinking habitat," if you want to use a biological
analogy. The environment of floppy disks, small programs and
weak operating systems made these viruses possible in the
1980s, but that environmental niche has been largely eliminated
by huge executables, unchangeable CDs and better operating
The latest thing in the world of computer viruses
is the e-mail virus, and the Melissa virus in March 1999 was
spectacular. Melissa spread in Microsoft Word documents sent
via e-mail, and it worked like this:
Someone created the virus as a Word document uploaded to an
Internet newsgroup. Anyone who downloaded the document and
opened it would trigger the virus. The virus would then send
the document (and therefore itself) in an e-mail message to
the first 50 people in the person's address book. The e-mail
message contained a friendly note that included the person's
name, so the recipient would open the document thinking it
was harmless. The virus would then create 50 new messages
from the recipient's machine. As a result, the Melissa virus
was the fastest-spreading virus ever seen! As mentioned earlier,
it forced a number of large companies to shut down their e-mail
The ILOVEYOU virus, which appeared on May 4, 2000, was even
simpler. It contained a piece of code as an attachment. People
who double clicked on the attachment allowed the code to execute.
The code sent copies of itself to everyone in the victim's
address book and then started corrupting files on the victim's
machine. This is as simple as a virus can get. It is really
more of a Trojan horse distributed by e-mail than it is a
The Melissa virus took advantage of the programming language
built into Microsoft Word called VBA, or Visual Basic for
Applications. It is a complete programming language and it
can be programmed to do things like modify files and send
e-mail messages. It also has a useful but dangerous auto-execute
feature. A programmer can insert a program into a document
that runs instantly whenever the document is opened. This
is how the Melissa virus was programmed. Anyone who opened
a document infected with Melissa would immediately activate
the virus. It would send the 50 e-mails, and then infect a
central file called NORMAL.DOT so that any file saved later
would also contain the virus! It created a huge mess.
Microsoft applications have a feature called Macro
Virus Protection built into them to prevent this sort of thing.
With Macro Virus Protection turned on (the default option
is ON), the auto-execute feature is disabled. So when a document
tries to auto-execute viral code, a dialog pops up warning
the user. Unfortunately, many people don't know what macros
or macro viruses are, and when they see the dialog they ignore
it, so the virus runs anyway. Many other people turn off the
protection mechanism. So the Melissa virus spread despite
the safeguards in place to prevent it.
In the case of the ILOVEYOU virus, the whole thing was human-powered.
If a person double-clicked on the program that came as an
attachment, then the program ran and did its thing. What fueled
this virus was the human willingness to double-click on the
of Viruses Up
People create viruses. A person has to write the
code, test it to make sure it spreads properly and then release
the virus. A person also designs the virus's attack phase,
whether it's a silly message or destruction of a hard disk.
So why do people do it?
There are at least three reasons. The first is
the same psychology that drives vandals and arsonists. Why
would someone want to bust the window on someone else's car,
or spray-paint signs on buildings or burn down a beautiful
forest? For some people that seems to be a thrill. If that
sort of person happens to know computer programming, then
he or she may funnel energy into the creation of destructive
The second reason has to do with the thrill of
watching things blow up. Many people have a fascination with
things like explosions and car wrecks. When you were growing
up, there was probably a kid in your neighborhood who learned
how to make gunpowder and then built bigger and bigger bombs
until he either got bored or did some serious damage to himself.
Creating a virus that spreads quickly is a little like that
-- it creates a bomb inside a computer, and the more computers
that get infected the more "fun" the explosion.
The third reason probably involves bragging rights,
or the thrill of doing it. Sort of like Mount Everest. The
mountain is there, so someone is compelled to climb it. If
you are a certain type of programmer and you see a security
hole that could be exploited, you might simply be compelled
to exploit the hole yourself before someone else beats you
to it. "Sure, I could TELL someone about the hole. But
wouldn't it be better to SHOW them the hole???" That
sort of logic leads to many viruses.
Of course, most virus creators seem to miss the
point that they cause real damage to real people with their
creations. Destroying everything on a person's hard disk is
real damage. Forcing the people inside a large company to
waste thousands of hours cleaning up after a virus is real
damage. Even a silly message is real damage because a person
then has to waste time getting rid of it. For this reason,
the legal system is getting much harsher in punishing the
people who create viruses.
Traditional computer viruses were first widely
seen in the late 1980s, and they came about because of several
factors. The first factor was the spread of personal computers
(PCs). Prior to the 1980s, home computers were nearly non-existent
or they were toys. Real computers were rare, and they were
locked away for use by "experts." During the 1980s,
real computers started to spread to businesses and homes because
of the popularity of the IBM PC (released in 1982) and the
Apple Macintosh (released in 1984). By the late 1980s, PCs
were widespread in businesses, homes and college campuses.
The second factor was the use of computer bulletin
boards. People could dial up a bulletin board with a modem
and download programs of all types. Games were extremely popular,
and so were simple word processors, spreadsheets, etc. Bulletin
boards led to the precursor of the virus known as the Trojan
horse. A Trojan horse is a program that sounds really cool
when you read about it. So you download it. When you run the
program, however, it does something un-cool like erasing your
disk. So you think you are getting a neat game but it wipes
out your system. Trojan horses only hit a small number of
people because they are discovered quickly. Either the bulletin
board owner would erase the file from the system or people
would send out messages to warn one another.
The third factor that led to the creation of viruses
was the floppy disk. In the 1980s, programs were small, and
you could fit the operating system, a word processor (plus
several other programs) and some documents onto a floppy disk
or two. Many computers did not have hard disks, so you would
turn on your machine and it would load the operating system
and everything else off of the floppy disk.
Viruses took advantage of these three facts to
create the first self-replicating programs.
Ounce of Prevention Up