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9.6. Update Strategies of Computer Worms

Computer worms can be classified according to their update strategies. An early example of this is W95/Babylonia, a Windows Help and PE infector and self-mailer that was discovered on December 6, 1999.

Babylonia was posted to the alt.crackers Internet newsgroup as a Windows Help file named serialz.hlp31, which appeared to be a list of serial numbers for commercial software. This Help file was launched by many people who activated the virus on their systems. When executed, the virus creates a downloader component that looks for updates on a Web site. (Figure 9.13 illustrates this.)

Figure 9.13. The update procedure of Babylonia.

First, the downloader reads the content of a text file called virus.txt stored on the Web site. This text file lists a few filenames, such as dropper.dat, greetz.dat, ircworm.dat, and poll.dat. These files use a special plug-in file format with a header that starts with the identifier VMOD (which stands for virus module). The header of the virus modules contains an entry point of the module and, using this information, the downloader component of Babylonia downloads and executes the plug-in modules inside its own process, one by one.

  • The dropper.dat module can reinstall the virus code on the system. This can be used by the attacker to update the virus with a newer release or to reinfect an already cleaned system via the downloader.

  • The greetz.dat module is the payload. It modifies the c:\autoexec.bat file to display a message, shown in Listing 9.7, in January of each year.

  • The ircworm.dat module is an mIRC worm installer that infects other targets via an mIRC.

  • The poll.dat module is used to track the number of infected machines. When it is used, it sends messages to, with the Portuguese message "Quando o mestre chegara?" ("When will the master arrive?")

Listing 9.7. The Babylonia Worm's Message
W95/Babylonia by Vecna (c) 1999
Greetz to RoadKil and VirusBuster
Big thankz to sok4ever webmaster
Abracos pra galera brazuca!!!
Eu boto fogo na Babilonia!

Not only is Babylonia able to infect two different Windows file formats, it also infects WSOCK32.DLL, allowing it to send e-mails with an attachment whenever the user sends mail. Babylonia somewhat borrows this idea from Happy99.

The weakness of the attack is the update system based on a single Web site. After authorities pulled the site, Babylonia could not download new components.

9.6.1. Authenticated Updates on the Web or Newsgroups

Realizing the weaknesses of a single Web sitebased update system, Vecna decided to use alternated update channels and strong cryptography to authenticate the updates. The W95/Hybris worm was released in late 2000. It was an unusually large project of several top virus writers from around the world: Brazilian, Spanish, Russian, and French virus writers were all part of the large team that developed it.

Hybris uses 1,023-bit RSA signing32 to deliver its update modules to infected systems. It also uses a 128-bit hash function to protect the updates against attacks. The hash function uses XTEA (extended tiny encryption algorithm, which is a successor of TEA). XTEA is in the public domain, written by David Wheeler and Roger Needham. The RSA library for Hybris was written by the infamous Russian virus writer, Zombie. Figure 9.14 is an illustration of the Hybris attack.

Figure 9.14. The authenticated updates model of the Hybris worm.

Note the interesting selection for XTEA instead of TEA, which was previously found weak by cryptographers John Kelsey, Bruce Schneier, and David Wagner many years ago at CRYPTO 1996. In fact, TEA was used as a hash function in the security of the second version of the Microsoft Xbox. This weakness was leveraged a day later after its announcement by a team headed by Andy Green to break the security of the Xbox scheme by flipping bits in Xbox's FLASH ROM code that allowed a jump instruction to branch to RAM33.

The idea of the Hybris worm is to encrypt the updates with XTEA and sign the update files with RSA on the attacker's system. The attacker creates a secret key and a corresponding public key. He puts the public key into the virus, and the XTEA encryption/decryption keys are delivered with the modulebut are signed with a 1,023-bit RSA secret key. This is called a hybrid signing technique, which makes the process more efficient.

Instead of using a single 128-bit key, Hybris uses 8 XTEA keys, one of which is a hash computed about the plug-in and 7 other 128-bit keys that are set randomly. First, a 128-bit hash of the module is calculated using XTEA. This value will be used as one of eight 128-bit encryption keys to encrypt the entire module using a 64-bit XTEA block cipher. The block cipher applies the eight 128-bit keys (including the hash of the plug-in) to each consecutive 64-bit block of the plug-in. Each 64-bit block is encrypted with one 128-bit key. Thus the first 64-bit block is encrypted with the first key in the set, the second 64-bit block is encrypted with the second 128-bit key (the hash) until the keys wrap around: The 9th block is encrypted with the first key again, and so on.

Signing allows the worm instances to check if the update files were distributed by the virus writer. Thus the RSA algorithm is used to prevent changes to plug-ins or to create new plug-ins without specifically involving the attacker who holds the secret key. The worm uses the public key corresponding to the secret key of the attacker to validate the signed XTEA key and verifies that the hash is correct to avoid forgery attacks.

Although the updates are encrypted, the algorithm uses a symmetric key so the modules can be decrypted by anyone, in the same way as the worm decrypts them. The attacker is protected against any manipulations that could occur to update modules. Thus it is not feasible to distribute an update that could kill the worm without the secret key of the virus author unless, of course, there is some implementation error discovered that commonly occurs in cryptography.

There were up to 20 known modules (so-called Muazzins) for Hybris. However, there were more than 32 different versions of these in circulation. After encrypting and signing the module, the attacker encoded the module to send it to the alt.comp.virus newsgroup. Infected systems, which were all looking for the modules, downloaded and decrypted them using their public keys.

Although the initial update Web site was quickly disabled, the attacker had the opportunity to send out new updates in newsgroups. Infected nodes propagated the modules back to the newsgroups, so all infected nodes had a chance to get the updates. Hybris used a similar technique to the Happy99 worm's algorithm to inject its code into the WSOCK32.DLL library, propagating itself via e-mail.

The update modules included several extensions to the worms:

  • A DOS EXE file infection module.

  • A file infection module to attack PE files without changing their size and CRC 16/32/48 checksum. This module used compression to compress the host and filled the module with extra data, using the algorithm of the Russian virus writer, Zhengxi, to make the CRC the same as it was before the infection.

  • A wrapper module to encrypt the Hybris-infected WSOCK32.DLL further.

  • A Windows Help file infection module. (This module borrows code from W95/Babylonia.)

  • A PE file infection module using Zombie's KME polymorphic engine.

  • Two archive infection modules to infect RAR, ZIP, and ARJ archives.

  • Two different plug-in modules to infect Microsoft Word documents and a third module to infect Microsoft Excel documents.

  • A DoS attack module.

  • An encrypted dropper generator module.

  • An attacker module to infect machines via a SubSeven backdoor.

  • A HATE (human-alike text engine) message module; this particular module could generate e-mail messages in the names of well-known antivirus researchers such as Eugene Kaspersky, Mikko Hypponen, and Vesselin Bontchev. My name was also on the list. The module was supposed to send e-mail messages using one of my e-mail addresses in the sender field with the subject "Uglier than Hermann Monster!" (most likely a reference to Herman Munster) with the attachment named "The Hungarian Freak!.exe."


    This module was written by the Spanish virus writer, Mr. Sandman, the founder of the 29A virus writing group, who is believed to be a professional translator. Many other viruses of Mr. Sandman's are related to his interest in languages, for example Esperanto and Haiku.

  • A retro attack module to block access to antivirus Web sites.

  • Another e-mail message generator using a SOAP Web server to generate fortune cookie messages and send these (with Hybris) to recipients.

  • A sys file infection routine to hide the infected WSOCK32.DLL on the system with stealth routines.

  • An exploit module that can be used to retrieve files from vulnerable Web servers.

  • Another retro attack to scan the disk and Registry for antivirus programs and delete them or corrupt their databases.

  • An e-mail-based tracker module to send e-mail messages from infected nodes to a particular e-mail account.

  • A few other generic message generator modules for e-mail propagation.

  • A Happy 2000 module. This one overwrites the SKA.EXE file of the Happy99 worm to propagate Hybris instead. It also contains the graphical payload of the Happy99 worm.

  • A module to download additional plug-in modules from Web sites.

  • A Usenet module to connect to NNTP servers and download plug-ins. This module also uploads other modules to a newsgroup.

  • Finally, an OpenGL-based animation that installed itself to load at boot time. This module, shown in Figure 9.15, was contributed by the French virus writer, Spanska.

    Figure 9.15. The OpenGL-based hypnotizer spiral plug-in.

Listing 9.8 is an example of a plug-in module posted to the alt.comp.virus newsgroup34.

Listing 9.8. A Hybris Update in alt.comp.virus (Partial Snippet)
Date: Tue, 24 Jul 2001 20:29:51 -0700
Newsgroups: alt.comp.virus
Subject: h_2k MRKR KRnAbIvQdE?UlOhK6CrWdU#YvYnM:SrYU


The body of this message contains the Happy 2000 plug-in of Hybris (only a snippet is shown in Listing 9.8). The name of the plug-in is in the Subject line as "h_2k," which is followed by the version number information of the plug-in. Hybris uses the version information to decide whether a module needs to be extracted and executed.

9.6.2. Backdoor-Based Updates

Several computer worms open up a port on the compromised system and implement an interface to execute arbitrary files on the compromised machine. The attacker can use this interface to update the worm's code from one version to another. For instance, the W32/Mydoom worm opens a TCP port in the range of 3127 to 3198 and waits for a connection, implementing a simple protocol. Essentially, Mydoom's code is updated similarly to a backdoor-based propagation technique described earlier in this chapter. The attacker needs to scan for systems that have a port open and can send an executable to the target that will be executed on the remote node. The first few versions of Mydoom did not implement any security mechanism for their update protocol. Not surprisingly, worms such as W32/Doomjuice, W32/Beagle, and W32/Welchia attacked Mydoom-compromised systems by taking advantage of the insecure update mechanism.

Later releases of Mydoom leave less chance for opportunistic attackers because they inspect incoming requests more carefully.

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