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Chapter 12. Memory Scanning and Disinfection

" Have no fear of perfection, you'll never reach it."

Salvador Dali

Memory scanning is a must for all operating systems. After a virus has executed and is active in memory, it has the potential to hide itself from scanners by using stealth techniques1. Even if the virus does not use a stealth technique, removing the virus from the system becomes more difficult when the virus is active in memory because such a virus can infect previously disinfected objects again and again. In addition, a file cannot be deleted from the disk as long as it is loaded in memory as a process. Similarly, a Registry key related to a malicious program cannot be deleted if the malicious code puts the same key back into the Windows Registry as soon as the keys are removed by the antivirus program.

As discussed in Chapter 5, "Classification of In-Memory Strategies," many viruses use the directory stealth technique under Windows 95 and Windows NT. We have also seen the first implementations of Windows 95 full-stealth viruses.

In early 1998, Mikko Hypponen, Ismo Bergroth2, and I discussed possible future threats for which we needed to prepare. One of the most worrying threats was the idea of a computer worm that never hits the disk. Even on-access scanners would be unable to protect systems from them because no files would be created on the disk before the worm was executed on the system. We figured that such a worm would probably use the HTTP protocol, exploiting a vulnerability of a Web server. However, our basic problem statement was even simpler: Web browsers such as Microsoft Internet Explorer render HTML content before saving files to disk. As a result, malicious code might be invoked before on-access scanners could block them.

In 2001, the W32/CodeRed worm proved this theory, followed by W32/Slammer, which used a similar approach. Without memory scanning, such threats cannot be detected by antivirus software, although some might argue that antivirus software is not the right solution to stop these threats, preferring another technology, such as intrusion prevention. Even more importantly, the memory scanner needs to make sure that an active worm copy is detected on the system. When CodeRed sends itself even to nonvulnerable Microsoft IIS systems, the body of the worm's code will be on the heap of IIS at exactly the same location where the active copy would run. I have seen AV solutions from major vendors that terminated IIS because an inactive worm copy was detected in the process address space of a nonvulnerable installation!

This chapter discusses the different ways that 32-bit viruses stay in memory as a particular process and describes possible ways of detecting and deactivating them.

At the end of 1998, we saw the first implementation of a native Windows NT virus that runs as a service: WinNT/RemEx3. Although it is possible to detect such a virus in memory even from a user-mode application, the problem becomes more difficult with a native Windows NT/2000/XP/2003 virus implemented as a device driver running in kernel mode. Such viruses cannot be detected in memory in user modeonly in kernel modebecause the system address space is protected from read and write access under Windows NTbased systems, unlike under Windows 95. This is probably the most important reason that a memory scanner should be implemented under Windows NT as a kernel-mode driver. In this chapter, I will discuss both user and kernel-mode implementations of a memory scanner under Windows NTbased systems.

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