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Chapter 2. The Fascination of Malicious Code Analysis

" The Lion looked at Alice wearily. 'Are you animalor vegetableor mineral?' he said, yawning at every other word."

Lewis Carroll (18321898), Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1871).

For people who are interested in nature, it is difficult to find a subject more fascinating than computer viruses. Computer virus analysis can be extremely difficult for most people at first glance. However, the difficulty depends on the actual virus code in question. Binary forms of viruses, those compiled to object code, must be reverse-engineered to understand them in detail. This process can be challenging for an individual, but it provides a great deal of knowledge about computer systems.

My own interest in computer viruses began in September of 1990, when my new PC clone displayed a bizarre message, followed by two beeps. The message read

"Your PC is now Stoned!"

I had heard about computer viruses before, but this was my first experience with one of these incredible nuisances. Considering that my PC was two weeks old at the time, I was fascinated by how quickly I encountered a virus on it. I had introduced the Stoned boot virus with an infected diskette, which contained a copy of a popular game named Jbird. A friend had given me the game. Obviously he did not know about the hidden "extras" stored on the diskette.

I did not have antivirus software at the time, of course, and because this incident happened on a Saturday, help was not readily available. The PC clone had cost me five months' worth of my summer salary, so you can imagine my disappointment!

I was worried that I was going to lose all the data on my system. I remembered an incident that had happened to a friend in 1988: His PC was infected with a virus, causing characters to fall randomly down his computer screen; after a while, he could not do anything with the machine. He had told me that he needed to format the drive and reinstall all the programs.

Later, we learned that a strain of the Cascade virus had infected his computer. Cascade could have been removed from his system without formatting the hard drive, but he did not know that at the time. Unfortunately, as a result, he lost all his data. Of course I wanted to do the exact opposite on my machineremove the virus without losing my data.

To find the Stoned virus, I first searched the files on the infected diskette for the text that was displayed on the screen. I was not lucky enough to find any files that contained it. If I had had more experience in hunting viruses at the time, I might have considered the possibility that the virus was encrypted in a file. But this virus was not encrypted, and my instinct about a nonfile system hiding place was heading in the right direction.

This gave me the idea that the virus was not stored in the files but instead was located somewhere else on the diskette. I had Peter Norton's book, Programmer's Guide to the IBM PC, on-hand. Up to this point, I had only read a few pages of it, but luckily the book described how the boot sector of diskettes could be accessed using a standard DOS tool called DEBUG.

After some hesitation, I finally executed the DEBUG command for the first time to try to look into the boot sector of the diskette, which was inserted in drive A. The command was the following:

DEBUG
-L 100 0 0 1

This command instructs DEBUG to load the first sector (the boot sector) from drive A: to memory at offset 100 hexadecimal. When I used the dump (D) command of DEBUG to display the loaded sector's content, I saw the virus's message, as well as some other text.

-d280
1437:0280 03 33 DB FE C1 CD 13 EB-C5 07 59 6F 75 72 20 50 .3........Your P
1437:0290 43 20 69 73 20 6E 6F 77-20 53 74 6F 6E 65 64 21 C is now Stoned!
1437:02A0 07 0D 0A 0A 00 4C 45 47-41 4C 49 53 45 20 4D 41 .....LEGALISE MA
1437:02B0 52 49 4A 55 41 4E 41 21-00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 RIJUANA!........

You can imagine how excited I was to find the virus. Finally, it was right there in front of me! I spent the weekend reading more of the Norton book because I did not understand the virus's code at all. I simply did not know IBM PC Assembly language at the time, which was required to understand the code. There were so many things to learn!

The Norton book introduced me to a substantial amount of the information I needed to begin. For example, it provided detailed and superb descriptions of the boot process, disk structures, and various interrupts of the DOS and basic input-output system (BIOS) routines.

I spent a few days analyzing Stoned on paper and commenting every single Assembly instruction until I understood everything. It took me almost a full week to absorb all the information, but, sadly, my computer was still infected with the virus.

After a few more days of work, I created a detection program, then a disinfection program for the virus, which I wrote in Turbo Pascal. The disinfection program was able to remove the virus from all over: from the system memory as well as from the boot and Master boot sectors in which the virus was stored.

A couple of days later, I visited the university with my virus detector and found that the virus had infected more than half of the PC labs' machines. I was amazed at how successfully this simple virus code could invade machines around the world. I could not fathom how the virus had traveled all the way from New Zealand where, I learned later, it had been released in early 1988, to Hungary to infect my system.

The Stoned virus was in the wild. (IBM researcher, Dave Chess, coined the term in the wild to describe computer viruses that were encountered on production systems. Not all viruses are in the wild. The viruses that only collectors or researchers have seen are named zoo viruses.)

People welcomed the help, and I was happy because I wanted to assist them and learn more about virus hunting. I started to collect viruses from friends and wrote disinfection programs for them. Viruses such as Cascade, Vacsina, Yankee_Doodle, Vienna, Invader, Tequila, and Dark_Avenger were among the first set that I analyzed in detail, and I wrote detection and disinfection code for them one by one.

Eventually, my work culminated in a diploma, and my antivirus program became a popular shareware in Hungary. I named my program Pasteur after the French microbiologist Louis Pasteur.

All my efforts and experiences opened up a career for me in antivirus research and development. This book is designed to share my knowledge of computer virus research.

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