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11.3. Algorithmic Scanning Methods

The term algorithmic scanning is a bit misleading but nonetheless widely used. Whenever the standard algorithm of the scanner cannot deal with a virus, new detection code must be introduced to implement a virus-specific detection algorithm. This is called algorithmic scanning, but virus-specific detection algorithm could be a better term. Early implementation of algorithmic scanning was simply a set of hard-coded detection routines that were typically released with the core engine code.

Not surprisingly, such detection caused a lot of problems. First of all, the engine's code was intermixed with little special detection routines that were hard to port to new platforms. Second, stability issues commonly appeared; the algorithmic scanning could easily crash the scanner because virus-detection updates always need to be released in a hurry.

The solution to this problem is the virus scanning language10. In their simplest form, such languages allow seek and read operations in scanned objects. Thus an algorithmic string scan can be performed by seeking to a particular location forward from the beginning or backward from the end of the file or from the entry point, reading bytes such as a pattern of a call instruction, calculating the location to which the call instruction points, and matching string snippets one by one.

Algorithmic scanning is an essential part of modern antivirus architecture. Some scanners, such as KAV, introduced object code as part of an embedded virus-detection database. The detection routines for individual viruses are written in portable C language, and the compiled object code of such detection routines is stored in the database of the scanner. The scanner implements an operating system loader-like run-time linking of all virus specificdetection objects. These are executed one by one, according to a predefined call order. The advantage of this implementation of algorithmic scanning is better scanner performance. Its disadvantage is the risk of minor instability caused by real code running on the system, which might contain minor errors when the response to an emerging threat must be carried out quickly with a complex detection routine.

To eliminate this problem, modern algorithmic scanning is implemented as a Java-like p-code (portable code) using a virtual machine. Norton AntiVirus uses this technique. The advantage of this method is that the detection routines are highly portable. There is no need to port each virus-specific detection routine to new platforms. They can run on a PC as well as on an IBM AS/400, for example, provided that the code of the scanner and the virtual machine of the algorithmic scanning engine are ported to such platforms. The disadvantage of such scanners is the relatively slow p-code execution, compared to real run-time code. Interpreted code can often be hundreds of times slower than real machine code. The detection routines might be implemented as an Assembly-like language with high-level macros. Such routines might provide scan functions to look for a group of strings with a single search or convert virtual and physical addresses of executable files. Even more importantly, however, such scanners must be optimized with filtering, discussed in the next section. In addition, as a last line of defense, detection code can be implemented in an extensible scanning engine, using native code.

In the future, it is expected that algorithmic scanners will implement a JIT (just-in-time) system to compile the p-code-based detection routines to real architecture code, similarly to the .NET framework of Microsoft Windows. For example, when the scanner is executed on an Intel platform, the p-code-based detections are compiled to Intel code on the fly, enhancing the execution speed of the p-codeoften by more than a hundred times. This method eliminates the problems of real-code execution on the system as part of the database, and the execution itself remains under control of the scanner because the detection routines consist of managed code.

11.3.1. Filtering

The filtering technique is increasingly used in second-generation scanners. The idea behind filtering is that viruses typically infect only a subset of known object types. This gives the scanner an advantage. For example, boot virus signatures can be limited to boot sectors, DOS EXE signatures to their own types, and so on. Thus an extra flag field of the string (or detection routine) can be used to indicate whether or not the signature in question is expected to appear in the object being scanned. This reduces the number of string matches the scanner must perform.

Algorithmic scanning relies strongly on filters. Because such detections are more expensive in terms of performance, algorithmic detection needs to introduce good filtering. A filter can be anything that is virus-specific: the type of the executable, the identifier marks of the virus in the header of the scanned object, suspicious code section characteristics or code section names, and so on. Unfortunately, some viruses give little opportunity for filtering.

The problem for scanners is obvious. Scanning of such viruses can cause certain speed issues for all products. A further problem is the detection of evolutionary viruses (such as encrypted and polymorphic viruses). Evolutionary viruses only occasionally can be detected with scan strings using wildcards.

Evolutionary viruses can be detected better using a generic decryptor11(based on a virtual machine) to decrypt the virus code and detect a possibly constant virus body under the encryption using a string or other known detection method. However, these methods do not always work. For example, EPO viruses and antiemulation viruses challenge such techniques. In such cases, early techniques such as decryptor/polymorphic engine analysis must be applied. Even viruses like W32/Gobi12 can be detected using such approach. (Decryptor analysis simply means that the defender needs to look into several polymorphic decryptors and match the code patterns of the decryptor within the polymorphic engine. This way, the decryptor itself can be detected in many cases using algorithmic detection.)

Algorithmic detection code typically loops a lot, which is processor-intensive. To give an example: In some cases, the highly optimized detection of the W95/Zmist13 virus must execute over 2 million p-code-based iterations to detect the virus correctly. Evidently, this kind of detection only works if the virus-infected file can somehow be quickly suspected and differentiated from noninfected files.

Although variants of the Zmist virus do not even mark infected objects, there are some opportunities to filter out files. Zmist implements several filters to avoid infecting some executables. For example, it only infects files with a set of section names it can recognize, and it does not infect files above a selected file size limit. The combination of such filters reduces the processing of files to less than 1% of all executable objects, which allows the relatively expensive detection algorithm to run effectively on all systems.

The following checks can be used for effective filtering:

  • Check the number of zero bytes in an area of the file where the virus body is expected to be placed. Although some viruses use encryption, the frequency of encrypted and nonencrypted data can be very different. Such a technique is commonly used by crypto code-breakers. For example, the tail (last few kilobytes) of PE files often contain more than 50% zero bytes. In an encrypted virus, the number of zero bytes will be often less than 5%.

  • Check the changes to the section header flags and sizes. Some viruses will flag sections to be writeable and others change similarly important fields to atypical values.

  • Check the characteristics of the file. Some viruses do not infect command-line applications; others do not infect dynamic linked libraries or system drivers.

11.3.2. Static Decryptor Detection

Problems arise when the virus body is variably encrypted because the ranges of bytes that the scanner can use to identify the virus are limited. Various products use decryptor detection specific to a certain virus all the way in all code sections of program files. Obviously, the speed of scanning depends on the code section sizes of the actual applications. Such a detection method was used before generic decryptors were first introduced. By itself, this technique can cause false positives and false negatives, and it does not guarantee a repair solution because the actual virus code is not decrypted. However, this method is relatively fast to perform when used after an efficient filter.

Consider the code snippet from W95/Mad shown in Figure 11.7 and discussed in Chapter 7, "Advanced Code Evolution Techniques and Computer Virus Generator Kits." The decryptor section of W95/Mad is in front of the encrypted virus body, right at the entry point of the infected PE files.

Figure 11.7. The decryptor of the W95/Mad virus.

In this example, the operand of the SUB instruction located at 404208 is variable. Thus a wildcard-based string would need to be used from the entry point. The following string will be able to detect this decryptor, even in minor variants of the virus:

8BEF 33C0 BF?? ???? ??03 FDB9 ??0A 0000 8A85 ???? ???? 3007 47E2 FBEB

Because this virus only uses a single method (an XOR with a byte constant) to decrypt the virus body, complete decryption of the virus code is simple. The decryption can be achieved easily because the key length is short. In our example, the key is 7Bh. Notice the 7Bh bytes in the encrypted area of the virusthey are zero because 7Bh XOR 7Bh=0. We know the constant code under the single layer of encryption, so a plain-text attack is easy to do. This detection method is the subject of the following section.

Decryptor detection also can be used to detect polymorphic viruses. Even very strong mutation engines such as MtE use at least one constant byte in the decryptor. This is enough to start an algorithmic detection using an instruction size disassembler. The polymorphic decryptor can be disassembled using the instruction size disassembler, and the decryptor code can be profiled. MtE used a constant, conditional backward jump instruction at a variable location. The opcode of this instruction is 75h, which decodes to a JNZ instruction. The operand of the instruction always points backward in the code flow, identifying the seed of the decryptor. Then the seed itself can be analyzed for all the possible ways the virus decrypts its body, ignoring the junk operations.

It is time-consuming to understand advanced polymorphic engines for all possible encryption methods and junk operations, but often this is the only way to detect such viruses.

11.3.3. The X-RAY Method

Another group of scanners uses cryptographicdetection . In the previously mentioned example of W95/Mad, the virus uses a constant XOR encryption method with a randomly selected byte as a key stored in the virus. This makes decryption and detection of the virus trivial. Consider the snippet of W95/Mad's virus body in encrypted and decrypted form, shown in Listing 11.3 and Listing 11.4, respectively. In this particular sample, the key is 7Bh.

Listing 11.3. An Encrypted Snippet of W95/Mad
Cipher text                           ASCII bytes
 5B4A42424C7B5155 - 1E231E7B20363A3F  [JBBL{QU.#.{ 6:?
 5B1D14095B2C1215 - 424E265B0D1E0908  [...[,..BN&[....
 1214155B4A554B5B - 393E2F3A5A5B5318  ...[JUK[9>/:Z[S.
 5239171A18105B3A  151C1E171B424C7B  R9....[:.....BL{

Listing 11.4. A Decrypted Snippet of W95/Mad
Corresponding plain text              ASCII bytes
 2031393937002A2E - 655865005B4D4144  1997.*.eXe.[MAD
 20666F722057696E - 39355D2076657273  for Win95] vers
 696F6E20312E3020 - 4245544121202863  ion 1.0 BETA! (c
 29426C61636B2041 - 6E67656C60393700  )Black Angel`97.

The virus can easily be decrypted by an algorithmic technique and exactly identified.

Researchers can also examine polymorphic engines of advanced viruses and identify the actual encryption methods that were used. Simple methods, such as XOR, ADD, ROR, and so on, are often used with 8-bit, 16-bit, and 32-bit keys. Sometimes the virus decryptor uses more than one layer encrypted with the same method (or even several methods) to encrypt a single byte, word, and double word.

Attacking the encryption of the virus code is called X-RAY scanning. This was invented by Frans Veldman for his TBSCAN product, as well as by several researchers independently about the same time. I first used X-RAY scanning to detect the Tequila virus. X-RAYing was a natural idea because decryption of the virus code to repair infections was necessary even for the oldest known, in-the-wild file viruses, such as Cascade. Vesselin Bontchev has told me that he saw a paper by Eugene Kaspersky describing X-RAY scanning for the first time.

X-RAY scanning takes advantage of all single-encryption methods and performs these on selected areas of files, such as top, tail, and near-entry-point code. Thus the scanner can still use simple strings to detect encryptedand even some difficult polymorphicviruses14. The scanning is a bit slower, but the technique is general and therefore useful.

The problem with this method appears when the start of the virus body cannot be found at a fixed position and the actual attack against the decryptor must be done on a long area of the file. This causes slowdown. The benefit to the method is the complete decryption of the virus code, which makes repair possible even if the information necessary for the repair is also stored in encrypted form.


X-RAY can often detect instances of computer virus infections that have a bogus decryptor, provided that the virus body was placed in the file with an accurate encryption. Some polymorphic viruses generate bogus decryptors that fail to decrypt the virus, but the encryption of the virus body is often done correctly even in these types of samples. Such samples often remain detectable to X-RAY techniques but not to emulation-based techniques that require a working decryptor.

Some viruses, such as W95/Drill, use more than one encryption layer and polymorphic engine, but they can still be detected effectively. It is the combination of the encryption methods that matters the most. For example, it does not really matter if a virus uses polymorphic encryption with an XOR method only once or even as many as 100 times, because both of these can be attacked with X-RAYing. For example, the polymorphic engine, SMEG (Simulated "Metamorphic" Encryption Generator), created by the virus writer Black Baron, can be effectively detected using algorithmic detection that takes advantage of virus-specific X-RAY technique.


Christopher Pile, the author of SMEG viruses, was sentenced to 18 months in prison in November of 1995, based on the Computer Misuse Act of the United Kingdom.

The Pathogen and Queeg viruses use the SMEG engine with XOR, ADD, and NEG methods in combination with shifting variable encryption keys.

The following sample detection of SMEG viruses was given to me by Eugene Kaspersky15 as an advanced X-RAY example. Kaspersky is one of the best in cryptoanalysis-oriented detection designs. He was able to detect extremely advanced encrypted and polymorphic engines using similar techniques.

SMEG viruses start with a long and variably polymorphic decryption routine. The polymorphic decryption loop is at the entry point of DOS COM and EXE files. However, the size of the decryptor is not constant. Because the decryptor's size can be long, the X-RAY decryption routine needs to use a start pointer p and increment that to hit each possible start position of the encrypted virus body placed after the decryptor to a nonconstant location.

The following five decryption methods must be implemented to decrypt the virus code, where s is the decrypted byte from a position pointed by p,t is the encrypted byte, k is the key to decrypt the byte t, and q is the key shifter variable that implements changes to the constant key. The variable s is equal to the decrypted byte by a selected method:

  1. s=t XOR k, and then k=k+q

  2. s=t ADD k, and then k=k+q

  3. s=t XOR k, and then k=s+q

  4. s=NEG (t XOR k), and then k=k+q

  5. s=NOT (t XOR k), and then k=k+q

The following X-RAY function can be implemented to decrypt the encrypted virus body of SMEG viruses. Before the decoding can start, a buffer (buf[4096]) is filled with data for 0x800 (2,048 bytes) long. The algorithm implements key recovery based on the fact that the first few bytes of the SMEG virus body is E8000058 FECCB104 under the encryption. This is called a known plain-text attack in cryptography.

The key that encrypted the first byte of the virus can be recovered using the byte 0xE8, and the q key shifter variable can be recovered from the differences between the first and the second bytes using the five different methods. See Listing 11.5.

The first for loop is incrementing the p pointer to attempt to decrypt the virus body at each possible position. Because the length of the polymorphic decryptor does not exceed 0x700 (1792) bytes, the start of the encrypted virus body can be found in any of these positions.

Then the key initializations for five different methods are done according to two encrypted bytes next to each other, pointed by p. Next, a short decryption loop is executed that uses each of the five decryption methods and places the decrypted content to five different positions of the work buffer for further analysis.

Finally, the last loop checks each decrypted region for a possible match for the start of the string. When the decryption method is identified, the entire buffer can be decrypted and the virus easily identified.

Listing 11.5. X-RAY of the SMEG Viruses.
for (p=0; p<0x700; p++)
    ch1=buf[p];             ch2=buf[p+1];

    k1=ch1^0xE8;            q1=ch2-k1;
    k2=ch1-0xE8;            q2=ch2-k2;
    k3=k1;                  q3=ch2-ch1;
    k4=(-ch1)^0xE8;         q4=-ch2-k4;
    k5=ch1^0xFF^0xE8;       q5=(ch2^0xFF)-k5; /* XOR FF = NOT */

    for (i=0;i<0x40;i++)
    buf[0x800+i]=ch1^k1; k1+=q1;
    buf[0x900+i]=ch1-k2; k2+=q2;
    buf[0xA00+i]=ch1^k3; k3=ch1+q3;
    buf[0xB00+i]=(-ch1)^k4; k4+=q4;
    buf[0xC00+i]=ch1^k5^0xFF; k5+=q5;   /* XOR FF = NOT */

  for (i=0x800;i<=0xC00;i+=0x100)
    if ( ((uint32*)(buf+i))[0]==0x580000E8 &&
         ((uint32*)(buf+i))[1]==0x04B1CCFE  )

       // Complete identification attempt here


This code style minimizes the looping required to execute the virus decryption fast enough to be acceptable. Evidently, X-RAY methods have limitations when more than two layers of encryption are used with shifting keys. In such cases other methods, such as code emulations, are preferred.

Consider the sample snippets of the SME.Queeg virus shown in Listings 11.6 and 11.7.

Listing 11.6. Encrypted SMEG.Queeg
32DC DE88 2030 55E4 - 3B04 6225 F12C A650
EEFB AE35 FC90 CE8A - DAB8 F220 1816 B516
1A16 03BD 912D CE6E - 2A8B 9D21 372D 9736
3A8C 3E1E 8237 5DFD - 4A4B 64EF D45D DD51

Listing 11.7. Decrypted SMEG.Queeg
E800 0058 FECC B104 - D3E8 8CCB 01D8 50B8
1401 50CB FA8C C88E - D0BC FC10 0606 A102
000E 1FA3 B10F E84A - 00A1 B10F 071F A302
00B0 0022 C075 19BB  0001 2EA1 820F 8907

As an exercise, try to identify which encryption/decryption methods were used to encrypt/decrypt this particular instance of the virus body. You can solve this exercise faster by taking advantage of the pair of zero bytes to recover the key and the delta. Realize that the sliding position of the virus body introduces complexity. For simplicity, noise bytes are not included in front of the encrypted code snippet.

Interestingly enough, virus writers also produced tools to perform X-RAYing. For example, in 1995 Virogen released a tool called VIROCRK (Super-Duper Encryption Cracker) to make it easier to read simple encrypted viruses. VIROCRK is limited in its X-RAYing. For example, it cannot attack sliding keys. However, it can decrypt many viruses quickly using plain text provided by the user.

I have seen X-RAY detection code written by Eugene Kaspersky for the W95/SK virus that was as long as 10KB of C code15. Not surprisingly, I prefer different methods to detect SK, using trial and errorbased emulation instead. Well, lazy me!

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