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11.12. Behavior Blocking

Another set of systems attempt to block virus infections based on application behavior. One of the first antivirus solutions, FluShot, belongs to this class of computer virus protection. For example, if an application opens another executable for write access, the blocker might display a warning asking for the user's permission to grant the write access. Unfortunately, such low-level events can generate too many warnings and therefore often become less acceptable to users than integrity checkers. Furthermore, the behavior of each class of computer virus can be significantly different, and the number of behavioral patterns that can cause infections is infinite.

A problem of even greater importance is that behavior-blocking systems are difficult to implement unless the operating system provides good memory protection. Even then, computer viruses might jump into privileged mode, as discussed in Chapter 5, "Classification of In-Memory Strategies," which reduces the effectiveness of a behavior-blocking system because it might easily be bypassed by the virus.

Some viruses can wait patiently until write access to the object is granted. These viruses are called slow infectors. Such viruses typically wait until the user makes a copy of an executable object; the virus (which is already loaded in memory) will be able to infect the target in the file cache before the file is created on the disk. Slow infectors attack behavior blockers effectively, but they are a real nightmare for integrity checkers, too44.

Furthermore, tunneling viruses can easily bypass behavior-blocking systems by jumping directly to the code that is used when the behavior blocker allows actions to proceed. Such tricks are also possible because behavior blockers often overlook an important system event that can be used to get around the protection. For example, on DOS 3.1+ systems, the internal function AX=5D00h/INT 21h is known as the server function call. This call has a DS:DX pointed parameter list, which holds a structure of registers (AX, BX, CX, DX, SI, DI, DS, ES), a computer ID, and a process ID. If the attacker specifies a computer ID with the value of zero, the function will be executed on the local system instead of a remote system.

Standard INT 21h function calls can be executed easily via this interface, by passing the appropriate registers in the parameter block. For example, the function AX=3D02h (file open for write) can be passed in the parameter block to open a file. When DOS receives the call, it copies the parameter block into the real registers and reenters the INT 21h handler directly. (See Figure 11.9 for an illustration.) The problem is obvious for behavior blockers. Unless it is prepared to handle this particular internal DOS function, the blocker will be bypassed, thinking that this call is harmless. Later, when the attack opens the file for write, the blocker's code is already bypassed and never called again.

Figure 11.9. A possible antibehavior-blocking trick on DOS.


I came up with the theory of this attack when a set of behavior blocker companies asked me to test their prevention solutions. They were surprised to learn about this and several other possible methods representing "holes" in their protection. In fact, some of these solutions that I was asked to test were virus protection systems implemented in hardware. None of them could withstand this specific attack at the time. To the best of my knowledge, however, no virus has used this trick, which demonstrates that it is a rather specific attack.

Of course, behavior-blocking systems are not useless; they still work effectively against large classes of computer viruses. In fact, they can be implemented using heuristic methods. Heuristics can reduce the false positives by providing better understanding of the attack. For example, most SMTP mass-mailing computer worms can be blocked very effectively with a system capable of recognizing self-mailing code. Another set of fast-spreading computer worms can be blocked by reducing the chances of system exploitation based on buffer overflow attack prevention. These techniques are discussed in detail in Chapter 13, "Worm-Blocking Techniques and Host-Based Intrusion Prevention."

Heuristic behavior-blocking systems are very promising against known classes of attacks. Through handling classes of computer viruses, thousands of viruses can be handled with a single method, with minimal false positives. In addition, some expert systems have been designed that use the behavioral pattern-matching to detect classes of viruses by training the system with computer virus infections on a test system45. Detection of backdoors based on behavioral patterns is also feasible46.

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