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13.1. Introduction

Computer worms can be classified based on the replication method they use. During the last couple of years, most of the successful, so-called "in-the-wild" computer worms used e-mail as the primary infection vector to reach new host systems. These worms are called mailer or mass-mailer worms.

Although the Win32 binary worms, such as W32/SKA@m (the Happy99 worm), were already reasonably widespread, the macro and script-based threats, such as W97M/Melissa@mm and VBS/LoveLetter@mm, made self-mailing computer viruses well known to the general public.

This trend was followed by years of successful Win32 binary worm attacks, such as W95/Hybris, W32/ExploreZip, W32/Nimda, and W32/Klez.

Recently, a new trend has slowly gained popularity among newbie virus writers: the aggressive, fast-spreading worm. The introduction of the W32/CodeRed worm, which created a major security challenge, initiated this trend.

When a relatively new and successful virus-writing strategy is introduced, it invariably spawns a flurry of copycat viruses that simply clone the basic concept behind the successful strategy. The cloning process produces hundreds of virus families that share the same basic characteristics, but usually with some minor improvements. Therefore the cloning of the W32/CodeRed worm was expected to implement new, even more aggressive worms.

The appearance of the W32/Slammer worm, which cloned the basic concept of CodeRed in 376 bytes, was not surprising. Slammer is one of the fastest-spreading binary worms of all time4. The infections peaked for a couple of hours, resulting in a massive denial of service (DoS) attack on the Internet.

Slammer used a UDP-based attack, instead of TCP, as previously seen in CodeRed. Because of the "fire and forget" nature of UDP (as compared to TCP) and because the attack could fit into a single packet, Slammer was much faster than CodeRed. A process attempting a TCP connection must wait for a timeout to know that a connection has failed, whereas Slammer could simply fire the entire attack at a potential target and then move on without waiting. A successful attack takes the same amount of time as a failed attackeach is fast, sending a single packet.

Properly written, asynchronous TCP connection methods can be nearly as efficient as UDP methods, but it takes considerably more programming skill and code to pull it off.

We can expect more malicious hackers to take advantage of "automated intrusions" using worms. Thus protecting systems against such classes of worms is increasingly important.

13.1.1. Script Blocking and SMTP Worm Blocking

Script worms such as VBS/Loveletter@mm spread at an order of magnitude faster than previous threats had done. Script worms encouraged Symantec engineers to consider adding generic behavior blocking against such threats as part of a line of Symantec AntiVirus products. As a result, script-blocking technology was successfully deployed in 20005.

We are positive that script blocking has made a tremendous difference to retail systems, effectively protecting home users, and as a result, such threats have started to slow down. As the combined result of effective file-based heuristics and script blocking, script threats continue to decline.

The sudden increase in 32-bit binary worms that use their own SMTP engines to send themselves in e-mail was a natural evolution of script and macro threats. SMTP worms, such as W32/Nimda@mm and W32/Klez@mm, created a demand for a worm-blocking feature in Symantec AntiVirus 2002. Worm blocking is a rather simple but very effective invention of mine.

Over the last year, this proactive protection successfully blocked such worms as W32/Bugbear@mm, W32/Yaha@mm, W32/Sobig@mm6, W32/Brid@mm, W32/HLLW.Lovgate@mm, W32/Holar@mm, W32/Lirva@mm, and other variants. During the first few months after deployment, Symantec Security Response received several thousand submissions, which worm blocking quarantined.

In August 2003, W32/Sobig.F@mm became responsible for one of the most significant e-mail worm attacks, paralyzing e-mail systems and lasting for days. Worm blocking stopped over 900 copies of the worm during the initial outbreak; thus Symantec AntiVirus retail customers were successfully protected from the worm even before definitions were made available against it. According to recent statistics, worm blocking stopped W32/Mydoom.A@mm more than 12,000 times. Table 13.1 shows the top 20 worm outbreaks according to worm-blocking data.

Table 13.1. Top 20 Win32 Worm Submissions via Worm Blocking

Number of Submissions

Name of Worm

12159

W32.Mydoom.A@mm

9709

W32.Netsky.D@mm

5334

W32.Netsky.B@mm

5111

W32.Yaha.K@mm

2598

W32.Netsky.C@mm

2451

W32.Mydoom.F@mm

1275

W32.Netsky.Z@mm

1274

W32.Sobig.E@mm

1210

W32.Mapson.Worm

1048

W32.Netsky.K@mm

1039

W32.Bugbear.B@mm

1021

W32.Sobig.F@mm

971

W32.Netsky.X@mm

888

W32.Dumaru@mm

745

W32.Netsky.Q@mm

673

W32.HLLW.Mankx@mm

652

W32.Sobig.C@mm

629

W32.Sobig.B@mm

390

W32.Mimail.A@mm

372

W32.Netsky.Y@mm


Typically, worm outbreaks are successful until the signature updates are delivered to the systems. Without worm blocking, it appears that an extra 12,000 systems would have propagated Mydoom.

Worm-blocking submissions resulted in quicker signature update deployments. As a result, all Symantec customers now enjoy a faster response to highly infectious Win32 worms. This outcome is excellent, considering that the virus writers have introduced several hundred 32-bit Windows viruses in each month of 2004, and many of the successful ones are mass-mailers.

Figure 13.1 shows the number of known 32-bit virus variants per month from September 1999 to October 2004.

Figure 13.1. Accumulated total known 32-bit Windows virus variants per month.


It appears that virus writing accelerated in 2004, with the fastest-developing type of computer worm being the network-level worm that uses exploits. There have been about 1,000 mass-mailer binary worms all together in the last few years. However, thousands of new worm variants appeared during the last 12 months that utilize exploits. Worms that use exploits might be underreported (compared to e-mail worms) for a number of reasons: They are harder to notice in general, and people experience the side effects of e-mail worms, together with other spam, on a daily basis. Their e-mail boxes are full of them.

The basic idea behind worm blocking is simple. The patented technology uses a host-based SMTP proxy that uses a kernel mode driver to direct outgoing traffic not only to the antivirus (AV) e-mail scanner component, but also to the worm-blocking component.

The worm-blocking component knows which particular process initiated the SMTP traffic because everything gets connected through the proxy. Thus the worm-blocking proxy component can check whether such a process, or its parent process, is in the current e-mail as an attachment. Self-mailing software is easily detected and blocked. This process works even if the actual attachment is a compressed file, like a ZIP file. In addition, the matching algorithm survives modifications to the file content to some extent, so worms such as W32/Klez or W32/ExploreZip, which change their body during each replication, remain detectable.

Worm blocking might not be able to stop each worm, but it has a great chance of doing so, especially when it comes to copycat worms.

13.1.2. New Attacks to Block: CodeRed, Slammer

Computer worms such as W32/CodeRed or W32/Slammer are particularly challenging to existing AV technologies alone. These highly infectious worms jump from host to host and from one infected system service process to another, over the Internet using buffer overflow attacks on networked services. Because the files need not be created on disk and the code is injected into the address space of vulnerable processes, even file integrity checking systems remain challenged by this particular type of attack.

This chapter focuses on host-based proactive methods as a last line of defense or a safety net against unknown attacks in known classes. The promise of host-based behavioral worm blocking is in detecting unknown worm variants and unknown worm attacks, based on already known techniquesthat is, cloned techniques. Host-based behavioral worm-blocking techniques offer a significant increase in protection against cloned attacks and can provide first-strike or day-one protection from such threats.

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