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3.5. File System Dependency

Computer viruses also have file system dependencies. For most viruses, it does not matter whether the targeted files reside on a File Allocation Table (FAT), originally used by DOS; the New Technology File System (NTFS), used by Windows NT; or a remote file system shared across network connections. For such viruses, as long as they are compatible with the operating environment's high-level file system interface, they work. They will simply infect the file or store new files on the disk without paying attention to the actual storage format. However, other kinds of viruses depend strongly on the actual file system.

3.5.1. Cluster Viruses

Some successful viruses can spread only on a specific file system. For instance, the Bulgarian virus, DIR-II, is a so-called cluster virus, written in 1991. DIR-II has features specific to certain DOS versions but, even more importantly, spreads itself by manipulating key structures of FAT-based file systems. On FAT on a DOS system, direct disk access can be used to overwrite the pointer (stored in the directory entry) to the first cluster on which the beginning of a file is stored.

Files are stored on the disk as clusters, and the FAT is used by DOS to put the puzzle pieces together. The DIR-II virus overwrites the pointer in the directory entry that points to the first cluster of a file with a value that directs the disk-read to the virus body, which has been stored at the end of the disk. The virus stores the pointer to the real first cluster of each host program in an encrypted form, in an unused part of the directory entry structure. This is used later to execute the real host from the disk after the virus has been loaded in memory. In fact, when the virus is active in memory, the disk looks normal and files execute normally.

Such viruses infect programs extremely quickly because they only manipulate a few bytes in the directory entries on the disk. These viruses are often called "super fast"infectors 1. It is important to understand that there is only one copy of DIR-II on each infected disk. Consequently, when DIR-II is not active in memory, the file system appears "cross-linked" because all infected files point to the same start cluster: the virus code.

A similar cluster infection technique appeared in the BHP virus on the Commodore 64 in Germany, written by "DR. DR. STROBE & PAPA HACKER" in circa 198611. This virus manipulates with the block entries of host programs stored on Commodore floppy diskettes. I decided to call this special infection technique the cluster prepender method. Let me tell you a little bit more about this ancient creature.

Normally, the Commodore 1541 floppy drive can store up to 166KB on each side of a diskette. The storage capacity of each diskette side is split into 664 "blocks" that are 256 bytes each. When BHP infects a program on the diskette, the virus will attempt to occupy eight free blocks for itself. Next, it replaces the "block" pointer in the first block of the host program to point to the virus code instead. Except for the first block, the host program's code will not be moved on the diskette. Instead, the virus will link its own "blocks" with the "blocks" of the host program as a single cluster of blocks. The infected host program will be loaded with the virus in front. Unlike the DIR-II virus, the BHP virus has multiple copies per diskettes. In each infection, eight blocks of free space will be lost on the diskette, but the infected files will not appear to be larger in a directory listing even if the virus is not active in memory.

Figure 3.2(1) shows when a BHP-infected program called TEST is loaded for the first time with a LOAD command. When I list the content of the loaded program with the LIST command, a BASIC command line appears as shown in Figure 3.2(2). This SYS command triggers the binary virus code. When I execute the infected program with the RUN command, the 6502 Assembly-written virus gets control. On execution of the virus code, BHP becomes active in memory. Finally, the virus runs the original host program. Figure 3.2(2) shows that a "HI" message is displayed when the loaded virus is executed. This message is displayed by the host program.

Figure 3.2. The BHP virus on Commodore 64.


When BHP virus is active in memory it becomes stealth just like the DIR-II virus. As shown in Figure 3.2(3), I load the infected TEST program a second time. When I list the content of the program, I see the original host program, a single PRINT command that displays "HI." Thus, the virus is already stealth; as long as the virus code is active in memory, the original content of the program is shown instead of the infected program. In addition, the BHP virus implements a set of basic self-protection tricks. For example, the virus disables restart and reset attempts to stay active in memory. Moreover, BHP uses a self checksum function to check if its binary code was modified or corrupted. As a result, a trivially modified or corrupted virus code will intentionally fail to run.

3.5.2. NTFS Stream Viruses

FAT file systems are simple but very inefficient for larger hard disks (in FAT terms, a drive of several Gigabytes is considered very large). Operating systems such as Windows NT demanded modern file systems that would be fast and efficient on large disks and, more importantly, on the large disk arrays that span many Terabytes, as used in commercial databases.

To meet this need, the NTFS (NT file system) was introduced. A little-known feature of NTFS is primarily intended to support the multiple-fork concept of Apple's Hierarchical File System (HPS). Windows NT had to support multiple-fork files because the server version was intended to service Macintosh computers. On NTFS, a file can contain multiple streams on the disk. The "main stream" is the actual file itself. For instance, notepad.exe's code can be found in the main stream of the file. Someone could store additional named streams in the same file; for instance, the notepad.exe:test stream name can be used to create a stream name called test. When the WNT/Stream12 virus infects a file, it will overwrite the file's main stream with its own code, but first it stores the original code of the host in a named stream called STR. Thus WNT/Stream has an NTFS file system dependency in storing the host program.

Malicious hackers often leave their tools behind in NTFS streams on the disk. Alternate streams are not visible from the command line or the graphical file manager, Explorer. They generally do not increment the file size in the directory entries, although disk space lost to them might be noticed. Furthermore, the content of the alternate streams can be executed directly without storing the file content in a main stream. This allows the potential for sophisticated NTFS worms in the future.

3.5.3. NTFS Compression Viruses

Some viruses attempt to use the compression feature of the NTFS to compress the host program and the virus. Such viruses use the DeviceIoControl() API of Windows and set the FSCTL_SET_COMPRESSION control mode on them. Obviously, this feature depends on an NTFS and will not work without it. For example, the W32/HIV virus, by the Czech virus writer, Benny, depends on this. Some viruses also use NTFS compression as an infection marker, such as the WNT/Stream virus.

3.5.4. ISO Image Infection

Although it is not a common technique, viruses also attack image file formats of CD-ROMs, such as the ISO 9660, which defines a standard file system. Viruses can infect an ISO image before it is burnt onto a CD. In fact, several viruses got wild spread from CD-R disks, which cannot be easily disinfected afterwards. ISO images often have an AUTORUN.INF file on them to automatically lunch an executable when the CD-ROM is used on Windows. Viruses can take advantage of this file within the image and modify it to run an infected executable. This technique was developed by the Russian virus writer, Zombie, in early 2002.

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