Table of Contents
Previous Section Next Section

2.3. Terminology of Malicious Programs

The need to define a unified nomenclature for malicious programs is almost as old as computer viruses themselves4. Obviously, each classification has a common pitfall because classes will always appear to overlap, and classes often represent closely related subclasses of each other.

2.3.1. Viruses

As defined in Chapter 1, "Introduction to the Games of Nature," a computer virus is code5 that recursively replicates a possibly evolved copy of itself. Viruses infect a host file or system area, or they simply modify a reference to such objects to take control and then multiply again to form new generations.

2.3.2. Worms

Worms are network viruses, primarily replicating on networks. Usually a worm will execute itself automatically on a remote machine without any extra help from a user. However, there are worms, such as mailer or mass-mailer worms, that will not always automatically execute themselves without the help of a user.

Worms are typically standalone applications without a host program. However, some worms, like W32/Nimda.A@mm, also spread as a file-infector virus and infect host programs, which is precisely why the easiest way to approach and contain worms is to consider them a special subclass of virus. If the primary vector of the virus is the network, it should be classified as a worm. Mailers and Mass-Mailer Worms

Mailers and mass-mailer worms comprise a special class of computer worms, which send themselves in an e-mail. Mass-mailers, often referred to as "@mm" worms such as VBS/Loveletter.A@mm, send multiple e-mails including a copy of themselves once the virus is invoked.

Mailers will send themselves less frequently. For instance, a mailer such as W32/SKA.A@m (also known as the Happy99 worm) sends a copy of itself every time the user sends a new message. Octopus

An octopus is a sophisticated kind of computer worm that exists as a set of programs on more than one computer on a network.

For example, head and tail copies are installed on individual computers that communicate with each other to perform a function. An octopus is not currently a common type of computer worm but will likely become more prevalent in the future. (Interestingly, the idea of the octopus comes from the science fiction novel Shockwave Rider by John Brunner. In the story, the main character, Nickie, is on the run and uses various identities. Nickie is a phone phreak, and he uses a "tapeworm," similar to an octopus, to erase his previous identities.) Rabbits

A rabbit is a special computer worm that exists as a single copy of itself at any point in time as it "jumps around" on networked hosts. Other researchers use the term rabbit to describe crafty, malicious applications that usually run themselves recursively to fill memory with their own copies and to slow down processing time by consuming CPU time. Such malicious code uses too much memory and thus can cause serious side effects on a machine within other applications that are not prepared to work under low-memory conditions and that unexpectedly cease functioning.

2.3.3. Logic Bombs

A logic bomb is a programmed malfunction of a legitimate application. An application, for example, might delete itself from the disk after a couple of runs as a copy protection scheme; a programmer might want to include some extra code to perform a malicious action on certain systems when the application is used. These scenarios are realistic when dealing with large projects driven by limited code-reviews.

An example of a logic bomb can be found in the original version of the popular Mosquitos game on Nokia Series 60 phones. This game has a built-in function to send a message using the Short Message Service (SMS) to premium rate lines. The functionality was built into the first version of the game as a software distribution and piracy protection scheme, but it backfired6. When legitimate users complained to the software vendor, the routine was eliminated from the code of the game. The premium lines have been "disconnected" as well. However, the pirated versions of the game are still in circulation, which have the logic bomb inside and send regular SMS messages. The game used four premium SMS phone numbers such as 4636, 9222, 33333, and 87140, which corresponded to four countries. For example, the number 87140 corresponded to the UK. When the game used this number, it sent the text "king.001151183" as short message. In turn, the user of the game was charged a hefty A31.5 per message.

Often extra functionality is hidden as resources in the applicationand remains hidden. In fact, the way in which these functions are built into an application is similar to the way so-called Easter eggs are making headway into large projects. Programmers create Easter eggs to hide some extra credit pages for team members who have worked on a project.

Applications such as those in the Microsoft Office suite have many Easter eggs hidden within them, and other major software vendors have had similar credit pages embedded within their programs as well. Although Easter eggs are not malicious and do not threaten end users (even though they might consume extra space on the hard drive), logic bombs are always malicious.

2.3.4. Trojan Horses

Perhaps the simplest kind of malicious program is a Trojan horse. Trojan horses try to appeal to and interest the user with some useful functionality to entice the user to run the program. In other cases, malicious hackers leave behind Trojanized versions of real tools to camouflage their activities on a computer, so they can retrace their steps to the compromised system and perform malicious activities later.

For example, on UNIX-based systems, hackers often leave a modified version of "ps" (a tool to display a process list) to hide a particular process ID (PID), which can relate to another backdoor Trojan's process. Later on, it might be difficult to find such changes on a compromised system. These kinds of Trojans are often called user mode rootkits.

The attacker can easily manipulate the tool by modifying the source code of the original tool at a certain location. At first glance, this minor modification is extremely difficult to locate.

Probably the most famous Trojan horse is the AIDS TROJAN DISK7 that was sent to about 7,000 research organizations on a diskette. When the Trojan was introduced on the system, it scrambled the name of all files (except a few) and filled the empty areas of the disk completely. The program offered a recovery solution in exchange of a bounty. Thus, malicious cryptography was born. The author of the Trojan horse was captured shortly after the incident. Dr. Joseph Popp, 39 at the time, a zoologist from Cleveland, Ohio was prosecuted in the UK8.

The filename scrambling function of AIDS TROJAN DISK was based on two substitution tables9. One was used to encrypt the filenames and another to encrypt the file extensions. At some point in the history of cryptography10, such an algorithm was considered unbreakable11. However, it is easy to see that substitution ciphers can be easily attacked based on the use of statistical methods (the distribution of common words). In addition, if given enough time, the defender can disassemble the Trojan's code and pick the tables from its code.

There are two kinds of Trojans:

  • One hundred percent Trojan code, which is easy to analyze.

  • A careful modification of an original application with some extra functionality, some of which belong to backdoor or rootkit subclasses. This kind of Trojan is more common on open source systems because the attacker can easily insert backdoor functionality to existing code.


The source code of Windows NT and Windows 2000 got into circulation in early 2004. It is expected that backdoor and rootkit programs will be created using these sources. Backdoors (Trapdoors)

A backdoor is the malicious hacker's tool of choice that allows remote connections to systems. A typical backdoor opens a network port (UDP/TCP) on the host when it is executed. Then, the listening backdoor waits for a remote connection from the attacker and allows the attacker to connect to the system. This is the most common type of backdoor functionality, which is often mixed with other Trojan-like features.

Another kind of backdoor relates to a program design flaw. Some applications, such as the early implementation of SMTP (simple mail transfer protocol) allowed features to run a command (for example, for debugging purposes). The Morris Internet worm uses such a command to execute itself remotely, with the command placed as the recipient of the message on such vulnerable installations. Fortunately, this command was quickly removed once the Morris worm exploited it. However, there can be many applications, especially newer ones, that allow for similar insecure features. Password-Stealing Trojans

Password-stealing Trojans are a special subclass of Trojans. This class of malicious program is used to capture and send a password to an attacker. As a result, an attacker can return to the vulnerable system and take whatever he or she wants. Password stealers are often combined with keyloggers to capture keystrokes when the password is typed at logon.

2.3.5. Germs

Germs are first-generation viruses in a form that the virus cannot generate to its usual infection processes. Usually, when the virus is compiled for the first time, it exists in a special form and normally does not have a host program attached to it. Germs will not have the usual marks that most viruses use in second-generation form to flag infected files to avoid reinfecting an already infected object.

A germ of an encrypted or polymorphic virus is usually not encrypted but is plain, readable code. Detecting germs might need to be done differently from detecting second, and later, -generation infections.

2.3.6. Exploits

Exploit code is specific to a single vulnerability or set of vulnerabilities. Its goal is to run a program on a (possibly remote, networked) system automatically or provide some other form of more highly privileged access to the target system. Often, a single attacker builds exploit code and shares it with others. "White hat" hackers create a form of exploit code for penetration (or "pen") testing. Therefore, depending on the actual use of the exploit, the exploitation might be malicious in some cases but harmless in othersthe severity of the threat depends on the intention of the attacker.

2.3.7. Downloaders

A downloader is yet another malicious program that installs a set of other items on a machine that is under attack. Usually, a downloader is sent in e-mail, and when it is executed (sometimes aided with the help of an exploit), it downloads malicious content from a Web site or other location and then extracts and runs its content.

2.3.8. Dialers

Dialers got their relatively early start during the heyday of dial-up connections to bulletin board systems (BBSs) in homes. The concept driving a dialer is to make money for the people behind the dialer by having its users (often unwitting victims) call via premium-rate phone numbers. Thus, the person who runs the dialer might know the intent of the application, but the user is not aware of the charges. A common form of dialer is the so-called porn dialer.

Similar approaches exist on the World Wide Web using links to Web pages that connect to paid services.

2.3.9. Droppers

The original term refers to an "installer" for first-generation virus code. For example, boot viruses that first exist as compiled files in binary form are often installed in the boot sector of a floppy using a dropper. The dropper writes the germ code to the boot sector of the diskette. Then the virus can replicate on its own without ever generating the dropper form again.

When the virus regenerates the dropper form, the intermediate form is part of an infection cycle, which is not to be confused with a dedicated (or pure) dropper.

2.3.10. Injectors

Injectors are special kinds of droppers that usually install virus code in memory. An injector can be used to inject virus code in an active form on a disk interrupt handler. Then, the first time a user accesses a diskette, the virus begins to replicate itself normally.

A special kind of injector is the network injector. Attackers also can use legitimate utilities, such as NetCat (NC), to inject code into the network. Usually, a remote target is specified, and the datagram is sent to the machine that will be attacked using the injector. An attacker initially introduced the CodeRed worm using an injector; subsequently, the worm replicated as data on the network without ever hitting the disk again as a file.

Injectors are often used in a process called seeding. Seeding is a process that is used to inject virus code to several remote systems to cause an initial outbreak that is large enough to cause a quick epidemic. For example, there is supporting digital evidence that W32/Witty worm12 was seeded to several systems by its author.

2.3.11. Auto-Rooters

Auto-rooters are usually malicious hacker tools used to break into new machines remotely. Auto-rooters typically use a collection of exploits that they execute against a specified target to "gain root" on the machine. As a result, a malicious hacker (typically a so-called script-kiddie) gains administrative privileges to the remote machine.

2.3.12. Kits (Virus Generators)

Virus writers developed kits, such as the Virus Creation Laboratory (VCL) or PSMPC generators, to generate new computer viruses automatically, using a menu-based application. With such tools, even novice users were able to develop harmful computer viruses without too much background knowledge. Some virus generators exist to create DOS, macro, script, or even Win32 viruses and mass-mailing worms. As discussed in Chapter 7 "Advanced Code Evolution Techniques and Computer Virus Generator Kits," the so-called "Anna Kournikova" virus (technically VBS/VBSWG.J) was created by a Dutch teenager, Jan de Wit, from the VBSWG kitsadly, de Wit got lucky and the kit, infamous for churning out mainly broken, intended code produced a working virus. De Wit was subsequently arrested, convicted, and sentenced for his role in this.

2.3.13. Spammer Programs

Vikings: Spam spam spam spam

Waitress: …spam spam spam egg and spam; spam spam spam spam spam baked beans spam spam spam

Vikings: Spam! Lovely spam! Lovely spam!

Monty Python Spam Song

Spammer programs are used to send unsolicited messages to Instant Messaging groups, newsgroups, or any other kind of mobile device in forms of e-mail or cell phone SMS messages.

Two lawyers helped to make spam an international, albeit notorious, superstar of the worldwide Internet virus scene. Their main objective was to send advertisements to Internet newsgroups. Spam mail has become the number one Internet nuisance for the global community. Many e-mail users complain that their inbox is littered with more than 70% spam each day. This ratio has been on the rise for the last couple of years.

The primary motivation of spammers is to make money by generating traffic to Web sites. In addition, spam messages are often used to implement phishing attacks. For example, you might receive an e-mail message asking you to visit your bank's Web site and telling you that if you don't, they will disable your account. There is a link in the e-mail, however, that forwards you to the fraudster. If you fall victim to the attack, you might disclose personal information to the attacker on a silver plate. The fraudster wants to get your credit card number, account number, password, PIN (personal identification number), and other personal information to make money. In addition, you might become the prime subject of an identity theft as well.

2.3.14. Flooders

Malicious hackers use flooders to attack networked computer systems with an extra load of network traffic to carry out a denial of service (DoS) attack. When the DoS attack is performed simultaneously from many compromised systems (so-called zombie machines), the attack is called a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack. Of course, there are much more sophisticated DoS attacks including SYN floods, packet fragmentation attacks, and other (mis-)sequencing attacks, traffic amplification, or traffic deflection, just to name the most common types.

2.3.15. Keyloggers

A keylogger captures keystrokes on a compromised system, collecting sensitive information for the attacker. Such sensitive information might include names, passwords, PINs, birthdays, Social Security numbers, or credit card numbers. The keylogger is installed on the system. Unbeknownst to the user, a computer could be compromised for weeks before the attack is ever noticed. Attackers often use keyloggers to commit identity theft.

2.3.16. Rootkits

Rootkits are a special set of hacker tools that are used after the attacker has broken into a computer system and gained root-level access. Usually, hackers break into a system with exploits and install modified versions of common tools. Such rootkits are called user-mode rootkits because the Trojanized application runs in user mode.

Some more sophisticated rootkits, such as Adore13, have kernel-mode module components. These rootkits are more dangerous because they change the behavior of the kernel. Thus, they can hide objects from even kernel-level defense software. For example, they can hide processes, files in the file system, registry keys, and values under Windows, and implement stealth capabilities for other malicious components. In contrast, user-mode rootkits cannot typically hide themselves effectively from kernel-level defense software. User-mode rootkits only manipulate with user-mode objects; therefore, defense systems relying on kernel objects have chance to reveal the truth.

    Table of Contents
    Previous Section Next Section